Mountain Paradise – Destination: Buscalan

We all need a relaxing vacation more often than not, right? I already know the answer to that question, so I’ll propose a country most notable for the crystal blue waters, white sand beaches, and an overload of pork dishes.

The Philippines.

The Philippines offers beauty inside and out, from the aesthetics spanning over 7,000 islands, to the smiling, always helpful (regardless of their situation) men, women and children across the country.

Like most, I decided this time around to try out a place new to me, but definitely not to tourists across the world – Boracay.

Beautiful beaches?

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I’d say yes. But….

Call me crazy if you want, but I got bored of Boracay. The beaches are stunning, but the island reminds me of a Kuta in Bali, Cancun or Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. It is packed with drunk tourists getting rowdy at all times. The island is small, leaving little room to escape the party scene when the day ends.

Maybe I should admit… I didn’t necessarily try to escape it, just couldn’t hang after three days! The thought of living that life for 10 days straight quickly turned my relaxing vacation into a potential shit show. It’s not for me. So I got to thinkin’, thinking about another paradise I have fond memories of. A little known area in the mountains of Northern Luzon, where the rice is native, the pigs are wild and the sounds are natural.


This remote village is accessible by Jeepney from Bontoc. After roughly 2-3 hours of unnervingly fast driving on the winding roads through gorgeous mountain tops, rice terraces and waterfalls, you’ll have to trek an hour or so up the mountain.

Depending on the time of year, you’ll encounter some landslides…

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These become bonding experiences though, like when the old woman asked me to carry her bags up and over the mound so she could carry her baby worry free. I always end up the jackass.

Throughout the journey the views captivate you. But its extremely refreshing to get outside of the Jeepney and begin the hike. (The drivers know the roads so well, they drive fast. Real fast. So for five plus hours it can get a little exhausting.) It starts with a unsuspecting trail on a flat grade… but quickly goes downhill and then straight up!


The beginning of the hike up


Clouded beauty


I’ve done this before…


Rice terraces all along the path up


Their native rice terraces feed the whole village.

Past waterfalls where the old men of the village bathe and the young men cool off from the strong mountain sunshine you traverse. Up and over rice terraces, which grow the “native rice” as they call it in Buscalan, that supply the whole village for the year. Only for personal consumption, none of this deliciousness makes its way out of the mountains.

After hundreds of butt burning stairs, the village shows it’s face. Ahhhhh simplicity. A year ago this village taught me the lesson of want versus need. I hadn’t seen a village quite like this before, living off the land, working together to build a tight knit community, where everyone is your mother, brother, sister and the like.

As advised last year, I brought gin for the men and candy for the children (really the mothers, but I won’t tell their secret). I met my guy AmBoy who along with his family would host me for however long I wanted to stay. The hospitality across the whole of the Philippines is quite amazing, but up here in the mountains it is a real lesson in care. Interested in your stories, in improving their English abilities, and gaining new friends from across the world, these guys and girls are so engaging.

The days are long and slowly paced here. We sit and talk, smoke, go see the legend Apo Whang-Od, and her skills that are holding on by the seemingly invincible thread of her weathered hands. There is much to this village I don’t want to divulge here, because I hold it close to my heart, and do not want to blow it up for all to see. Just know if it is true relaxation you want, a mind clearing moment away from modernity, and a lens into those people and lifestyles forgotten by modern politics and city dwellers, then Buscalan is the place for you. Its a special kind of paradise. It’s my kind of paradise.

I’ll leave you with pictures, and hope to hear your stories from this village in the future, if you choose to make the trek.

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Elephant Mountain

Took a late afternoon stroll up Elephant mountain yesterday with some friends. To get here, take the MRT, or bike, to Xiangshan station at the end of the red line. From there walk through the park and up. Easy to find, as many go here. You’ll be greeted with a temple and stairs going up the mountain. Truth be told it isn’t much of a mountain, more of a short, very steep, stairway to the viewpoint where so many go.


The beginning


Stairs on stairs on stairs

You can continue, however, up and up the “Four Beasts,” the name they give the four peaks in the area. Separately they are Elephant, Lion, Tiger, and Leopard. Looking back, I’m not sure we made it to the next peak, Tiger peak, but I can’t be sure seeing as I don’t read Chinese.


Beautiful orchids


Do you see it?

We did find a nice trail with ropes to climb up boulders, and ladders bolted into the face of the rocks. All a nice change, and an added sense of adventure, from the monotonous stairway to heaven feel of the mountain trails. We took these up to Juiwufeng Peak, which even on a hazy day in Taipei, provided excellent views just before dusk.


The view just after the bouldering rope ladder section

From the radio towers


Radio towers

Beware of gnarly giants spiders during your climb up and down the mountain! They sneak up on you and are surprisingly low to the ground! I was almost devoured by this one…


Peering down at me.


Looked up at the last minute

The rest of the hike down is difficult, if only because your legs are heavy and its all stairs of varied width and length. Take your time, keep your knees bent, and give it a go! It’s an easily accessible hike right in Taipei, and an incredible escape from the smog and buzzing of motorbikes. Plus, 80 year olds are doing this at 6 am…so, what’s your excuse? I’ll leave you with the rest of my pictures from the day. Let’s call it 50 Shades of Taipei (101): DCIM107GOPRO DCIM107GOPRO


Back on the streets, looking up again

Aint No Party Like A Tarsier Party

Do you know what a Tarsier is?


Maybe you’ve seen this.

You should really see this photo, and the rest of Charles Ryan’s photography on Instagram Then, check this out, two nights ago this happened: tarsier I snuck around in the jungle, quietly tip toeing around dead leaves and leeches, trying to get side by side with this little fella and take a pic. As you can see I was pretty damn happy about this.  You can also see that this little guy is way more keen than I expected, and saw me from a mile away.

Once he spotted me, he took a leap from that tree like a frog, springing himself directly over my head! I thought for sure he was after my face. He hopped away into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Lucky for us, this was a fruitful night hike. Five (!!!) tarsiers in two hours! That’s easily a personal best.

It took me a while, and many hours of night hikes to be able to spot one on my own. Like all animals, tarsiers give off eye shine, in their case its this reddish orange glow. Unlike most animals, once they get the light in their eyes they wisely turn their heads away. Most animals, I’m looking at you Mouse Deer, just stare at you, dumbfounded, blinded by the light. Tarsier Aren’t these tarsiers a trip? Adorable as they are to us, many locals won’t get close or hunt them because of their “worldly features.” They live in different worlds, with the head of an owl, tail of a rat, claws on their hands and the legs of a frog. I see cute tree hugger that joyfully hops from tree to tree. Others see demon. Fine with me, for that I can see FIVE IN TWO HOURS.

Going on a night hike in the Borneo Rainforest is one of the coolest activities in this world. You could see absolutely nothing, and you will still have the experience of a lifetime. The jungle never sleeps. Lizards, frogs, and who knows what else are constantly making noises to keep your mind on full alert.

But most of the time, through that little beam of light on your head, you will see something. The jungle is flush with wildlife. Civets, mouse deer, countless reptiles and amphibians, the list goes on and on.

Every once in a while you will have one of those spectacular nights, where you crash a tarsier party.

And there aint no party like a tarsier party, when a tarsier party don’t stop.

Photos taken by Atteh, my jungle trekking partner in crime this last week and guide for Sticky Rice Travel

That One Time China Denied Me

Damn you, faulty information online! Damn you!!

I choose to blame that information from the website belonging to the Chinese Embassy, on why I was denied access to China via Shenzhen. I had read there, that I could attain a Visa on Arrival, as long as I went overland.

So I spent my first three days enjoying Hong Kong and all the tourist attractions it had to offer. I wanted to make sure I checked everything off before I stepped foot into China, where I had these elaborate plans to train it to Xiamen, take a nine hour bus ride to hike Mt. Wuyi, and on my way back stay in some 12th century earth houses.

Hike to Victoria’s Peak, check. Ride the Star Ferry, check. Hike Dragon’s Back Trail, check. Check out Wan Chai, Walk of Stars, and the Occupy Central, did that. Stuff my face as if I was a chipmunk preparing for winter with dim sum? Maybe like 5 checks there.

Perfect, Im off to China, ready to leave behind the English language and really explore a small fraction of that mammoth country!

I hop on the MTR to the last station, Lok Ma Chau, exchanged all my Hong Kong dollars to Chinese Yen, and proceed to get into Shenzhen… I’m not too sure where to go so I ask a nice girl working at the station.

Wrong stop. Dag Nabbit.

Im supposed to go to Lo Wu. Off to a great start, I take the train back one stop then connect onto the right path. After all that I find myself standing in a very long customs line, not exactly sure when I will buy my Visa on Arrival. Is it the first customs checkpoint? Apparently not. I cruise through that with no hassles, and onto the next customs check, which holds a similarly long queue. The line dwindles down, and as I approach the man behind the counter, I realize I have already made it into Mainland China. Seems funny, but I had crossed the imaginary line dividing Hong Kong and Shenzhen inside the train station, without  a visa on hand. But because we live in the modern, divisive world, I still had to approach the man behind the customs counter to officially “enter.”

“Sir, where is your visa?”

“Yeah I know, where can I buy my visa?”

After getting so close, I was turned back to go upstairs and purchase my visa on arrival. I walk upstairs, to find a relatively empty room, which looks great! No wait time. Before I can even get my passport fully out of my pocket, the guy behind the glass tells me I cannot get a visa here.

“Wait wait wait, the other guy said come here.”

“Citizens of the United States are not allowed to purchase a visa on arrival here, you must go back to Hong Kong and the office in Wan Chai, where the processing time is four days.”

Well, isn’t that something. Apparently we are one of a handful of countries that are not allowed to do this. At this point I only had six days left, so I decided to bypass the visa process. Getting back into Hong Kong took a little longer, as I had to pass through each customs stop, then get held up while they process my passport to make sure I’m not endangering the country. Then check my bags to make sure Im not smuggling anything BACK into Hong Kong.

All in all, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. I can’t complain though, I had a blast in Hong Kong, it truly is one of the most lively, beautiful cities in the world. As it was, checking off the touristy stuff beforehand left me with my finals days to explore like a local, which is how I always want to explore.

I’ll accept this rejection from China as a future invite to come in and explore. Can’t keep me out forever!

Exploring Hong Kong

Eleven days here. Some might say that is way too many. In many ways I’m of the same sentiment, however I have enjoyed this city so much, and the locals who have shared it with me.

Hong Kong is so electric, in the literal and the figurative. Neon signs flash just above head level while the streets are swarmed with locals and tourists – all with their face attached to their smartphone.


The countless markets with no room for those unequipped to bargain, regardless of the language being spoken, will send you into a feel for old China. Actually, it was here I learned the term “lah” is not from Malaysia, but China! Ok lah. For such an expensive city, you really don’t have to look far for a deal on knock off gear. The Ladies Market, Goldfish Market, and Stanley Market are just a few of the better known markets within this city, with countless others to peruse.

I’ll admit though, I’m not a big city person. I’m more keen on spending my time in the forest, on the beach or in the jungle. Not so much the concrete jungles of the world. This is one reason, as a tourist, eleven days may have worn on me a bit. Through my first experience with Couchsurfing I learned from my awesome host that Hong Kong is only 26% urban, which was music to my ears. Luckily Hong Kong is so efficient and impossible to get lost in, so making it outside of the city was a piece of cake. I found myself at the end of the MTR line, looking for a cemetery to hike through so I could get to the trail head. But… I got kind of lost. In this efficient, impossible to get lost in city. The further outside of main Hong Kong city you go, the less English you hear. So out came the hand signals and big smiles! After a few semi productive interactions with random locals, I found my mark. Up 400 stairs or so, through tombstones, I made it to the Dragons Back trail head which I took down to Big Wave Bay. Shirt off, beer open, a nap ensued. Peace and regeneration at last.

BigWaveBay BigWaveBay1

Within the city you can hike up to Victoria’s Peak, and take the scenic loop around, enjoying the classic, stunning views of Hong Kong. Just don’t get lost like I did, and end up on some other peak where apartment complexes sit, fenced in by barbed wire. Good thing my hand signals are on point, and I was able to get back on track here too.


During my first few days here, I decided to check out Occupy central. The Umbrella Movement is real. It is inspiring to walk on the main highway thats been shut down as if it were the apocalypse, littered with tents, medical stations, makeshift restaurants, and libraries. They have turned this highway into their own community. The contrast between the towering sky rises, worth billions, standing tall above the young men and women fighting for the CHANCE to vote on their future, is powerful. I know the government ordered the shut down of this center a few days before I left. I hope they continue to fight against a system designed to keep them on the outside looking in. I think the world can learn from the situation here. Peacefully making moves against corruption, one umbrella at a time.


“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be BETTER”


I’ve gone this whole time and I haven’t even mentioned THE FOOD! As a recent lover of dim sum, I can say the best in the world sits right here in Hong Kong. I’m positive there are wonderful 5 star restaurants here, but that’s not my style. I look for the hole in the wall. The place where I get all sorts of strange looks when I walk through the door. I want to be the only foreigner in there. I’ve devoured shrimp, pork, shanghai, and veggie dumplings like a garbage disposal. Pork buns free flowing through my body at all times. Spicy beef brisket noodle soups for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Unashamed as I slurp away, blow my nose and wipe the sweat off my brow. I truly love the food here. In fact, writing this has me starving again, even though I just inhaled enough dim sum for three. 5-2 odds I stop for a spicy soup dish on my way to the bus stop.


You know what? I’ve changed my mind. Eleven days was not too much time to spend in Hong Kong, it was just right. Hong Kong has been good to me, the people have shown me incredible hospitality and the hidden gems this international hub has to offer, whether its losing money betting on Horses at Happy Valley, hitting the countless hikes, or just wandering the streets on the prowl for good food and cheap suits.

I’m going to cruise the waterfront one last time before I head to the airport, and may or may not get some grub on the way. (I think you know where to put your money)


P.S. look what I was going to write initially:

For all its efficiency, Hong Kong sure is exhausting. Granted, I am coming from Sabah, where the winter clothes consist of tank tops and flip flops, and the hustle and bustle of the city is confined to the two major shopping malls. Hong Kong is another animal all together. A dim sum filled, handrail grabbing animal with its eyes glued to its smartphone.

Oh how time changes all.

The Terribly Gorgeous Trek

What the f— is glamping??

I don’t know, and I don’t care. What I do know is the real deal meat of camping lies in between the sandwich loafs of discomfort and natural wonder.

This last weekend, for my birthday, I definitely ate that sandwich. It was terrible, and amazing all at the same time. I think you know the feeling. I had the fortunate opportunity to make a guest appearance guiding for Sticky Rice Travel, as we took some clients on a two day, one night, 12 km trek through the Crocker Range, ending at Mahua waterfall.

We started early Saturday morning, driving up to the range, wiping the cold out of our eyes. When we arrived there was a cool breeze to combat the deep heat Borneo always pelts you with. The forest up here is stunning, we traverse through ultramafic forest type, with pitcher plants, mossy gardens and orchids all around, through bamboo skyscrapers tunneling overhead, and down through your typical lower montane Borneo rainforest.

Alright, so we began our trek around 9am, myself with the whole campsite on my back. I’m about 180 lbs, and I think I know now what it would be like to trek if I was Lebron James. (He’s about 280 lbs? Right?) We took three hours to get to our first stop, a makeshift hut at the 3km mark where we could stop and eat. I pulled out the rice and sardines from my pack and we cooked up. Crocker_Range_BorneoCrocker_range_malaysia gunung_alab_crocker_rangeDCIM106GOPRO It being only 1 in the afternoon when we finished, the decision was made to keep trekking, and campout at the 6km mark. Even with the time taking roughly one hour per kilometer, it seemed silly to stay there the remainder of the day and night, when there was another shelter three hours away.

Oh, wait… there wasn’t?

Damnit, not exactly what you want to hear from the ranger after you’ve already put in an hour of that three hour trek to the “campsite.” I only say this though, because rain was a guarantee. Up that high on the range, we were pretty lucky we hadn’t been hit with it yet, but I knew without a structure to string the hammocks under, it was going to be a wet night. Regardless, we moved on.

Through bamboo tunnels we cruised, keeping our heads to the sky, on the lookout for giant pitcher plants hanging from the trees above. Every once in a while a window to the outside would poke itself through the forest enclosure, letting us know how beautiful of a day it was just beyond the moss covered towers overhead.

bamboo_crocker_range_borneo  crocker_range_sabah_hike


Three hours later, we arrived. And he wasn’t kidding. They were in the process of building a camp, which meant there were some wooden stakes stacked around a semi-cleared area of jungle. While I set up the hammocks for everyone, Azriel (my coworker) started the coffee and tea and prep for dinner. Our camp turned out alright, the trees were kind enough to be spaced just perfectly so our clients could sleep side by side. I threw up a couple tarps up for them, hoping it would be enough if the rain came hard and heavy in the middle of the night. My hammock was strung up on trees spaced a little ways away, which meant I would dip down leaving the tarp cover too many inches above me. Sideways rain would get in no problem.

The wood was too wet for a consistent campfire, leaving us with a bottle of petrol to spray on the dying embers every few minutes.


Lets go for a night walk instead. Cruising with our torches we set out into the mist. Fog had come in heavy on the ridge at this point, winds swirling all around us, reminded me of a cool San Francisco night. Unfortunately mammal life isn’t crazy up here, but amphibians, including the endemic Bornean Horned Frog were rampant. So many frogs are unseen and well heard, but if you look hard enough you will find these lazy guys everywhere. Their defense mechanism is to literally stand still and say “Please don’t see me, please don’t see me.” Luckily we weren’t in the mood for frog porridge!

Thunder cracked in the distance, and not knowing which way the wind was blowing from, we made the call to turn back. We had gone a full day with no rain; we were due to get hit hard, and wouldn’t you know it, not more than 3 minutes after arriving at camp the rain hit! The clients changed clothes, hopped in their sleeping bags and were out. I had a fleece blanket, jeans, one pair of socks, and three long sleeved shirts on, with my rain jacket as well.

Lets just say I did not sleep well. Easily the coldest night I’ve had here in Borneo, I’ll generously put it at 3 hours of sleep. Rain dumped on us all night, never relenting. Thankfully I had my rain jacket on with the hood up, so I stayed relatively dry. I think my shivering kept the water off me as well…. like a dog getting out of a pool.


Wet. Sleepless. Time to Trek.

Alright I’ve described enough of the “terrible,” lets move to the natural wonder. As my toes wiggled to regain blood flow and warmth, I look out to see steam rising with such abundance you’d think the forest was on fire. The rising sun split the trees with its rays, illuminating the freshly wet greenery around us. Azriel cooked breakfast in a godly manner with his one leg up, sunrays shining bright behind him… it was pretty magical. Crocker_range_campingCrcoker_range_camping_cooking sunlight_crocker_range_sabah_borneo_malaysiajungle_crocker_range_sabah_borneo There wasn’t much of a sleep to wake up from, but this morning was absolutely gorgeous. All of us just stood around in silence, soaking in the sun, the scenery and holding our coffee close with two hands. The only noises were the birds waking up and the droplets falling from the trees above. After a morning meal and lots and lots of coffee, we packed up our bags and continued on for the 6 kilometers we had left. Eventually we arrived at the Mahua waterfall, feeling exhausted and a little jealous of the families who drove there to barbeque. crocker_range_peak_hikecrocker_range_hike_borneo crocker_range_hike_borneo_junglemahua_waterfall_crocker_range_gunung_alab In retrospect, the minor discomforts weren’t all that terrible once we witnessed that glorious morning. That’s the beauty of camping. Being out there in the jungle, with the “back to the roots” feeling, will wipe away all those aches and pains, the shivers and bruises, and will fill you up with pride and excitement, a sense of accomplishment, and a much needed waterfall shower.

The Love of Green

Before having a favorite color was a conscious decision, green made me feel right. Not just for the pure aesthetic beauty and diversity of the color green, but for what it represents.

Green equals fresh. Not even fresh, green equals refreshed. The shadowed forest green gives way to the young fluorescent. Life renewed.

Growing up surrounded by green and its diversity, from the literal — the rolling green hills leading to the fresh pine covered forests — to the ideals — The “Green” movement embedded in Northern California, you would think I might be unmoved by the sight of it. But my love for green seems less like a choice, and more of a necessity, every day.

Lately I have been less and less in nature, and more in the city due to exciting new ventures, but I have missed the outdoors. Without it life can feel stagnant.

I had the opportunity to go camping with Sticky Rice Travel and clients on the base of Mount Kinabalu this last weekend. Not up on the peak, but down below, in a secret location tucked away in the wet jungle. Frigid waterfalls flow from the top down, leaving us with natural swimming holes and bath tubs to enjoy after days of slipping, sliding, trekking and climbing. This substation lacks mammals to spot, but the reptiles and amphibians thrive in the moist environment. As well as the birds. The ample beautifully colored birds flying overhead and chirping throughout the day will turn anyone into an aspiring amateur birder.

The spectacular feeling stemming from being surrounded by nothing but greens is what I needed. The feeling of being wild again,  enlivened by swimming in waterfalls, crawling through damp rainforest and sleeping under the stars is vital.


Laying here, in my forest green hammock, wrapped in my pine colored fleece, after a full day of romping through the refreshed rainforest, is validation of my need for green. Life needs to be refreshed often. Life needs the diversity green provides. Life is too stale without some green in it.


I Still Don’t Surf

“Where are you from?”



Every time. Without fail. I used to answer with the excuse that I mountain bike instead. Or I grew up boogie boarding. Or the water is too cold in Northern California. Or that I really want to but just haven’t yet for a collection of other, minor excuses. But lately the answer has been a bold faced lie. “Yeah!”

Well, I’ve been in Bali for the last two weeks, and I thought I better back it up. At least be able to say I caught a few waves in surfer’s paradise. Buuuutttt…… I didn’t. My excuse? reason? Financial limitations, too crowded, too shallow, blah blah blah. I just don’t really have the craving to get out there and stand up on the board. I’d rather drink a few Bintangs, cruise the beach, and relax on the sand, getting my bronze on. That’s not to say I didn’t take time to explore something new. It was exciting for me, to cruise around Uluwatu for the last few days on a scooter. That’s right, my scooter sessions were extremely exciting. I used to be afraid to ride any sort of motor bike, more of a fear of wanting to go too fast. I used to drive a truck like a speed demon, what the hell would I do on a motorcycle? I always convinced myself it would end in some epic crash.

Uluwatu is a gorgeous escape from the awfully hectic Kuta, just 30 minutes or so south of the main city, lies crystal clear waters, monumental cliffs absorbing the crashing waves, and countless beaches to explore along the winding road. To do so, I needed my scooter. First up was Impossible beach. Impossible maybe because it was impossible to find a sandy patch to chill out on? I don’t know. But it was gorgeous as I soaked in the remaining sunlight, watching the tide creep out and expose the soft reef below. Watching the surfers catch the last waves, then literally walk back from the break in ankle deep water, I realized this was one of those ‘too shallow and dangerous to learn on’ beaches.

Impossible Beach sunset

Impossible Beach sunset

Time to travel a little further from home, so I went to Padang Padang beach. This place is LOVED by tourists. The Eat Pray Love crowd flocks because part of the movie was filmed here. They even chill out in the shadiest areas. I can’t imagine they chose to though, the beach is just packed and they didn’t get out of bed early enough. Neither did I, so I wedged myself in between two towels and relaxed (The benefits of not bringing your own towel…fitting in the slivers of the sand). This was the beach to learn surfing, calm waves, sandy bottom… but it was so crowded in the water as well as the beach. Also the most expensive to rent a board, due to the massive amounts of tourists, so I passed. On another note, the Bakso from the guys motorbike food stand was excellent! Best tasting Bakso yet, and it was only 10,000 Rupiah (0.84 USD)!

I decided to scoot around more and more the next day. I upgraded to shirtless and helmet less scooting by now, so the feeling of freedom motivated me to ride til sunset. But really it took about 15 minutes to get to the Pura Luhur Uluwatu Temple, so I thought I’d make a pit stop and check it out. The temple was built in the 11th century along stunning sea cliffs to keep the evil spirits out of Bali. The temple itself was pretty unimpressive. Laced with aggressive macaques, trained to steal your sunglasses and other goodies, you have to be on guard at all times. I had one jump over my head, and swipe at my face for my glasses all in one motion!! For a temple built to ward off evil spirits, it definitely housed a bunch of little devils.


Devils..err Monkeys

The views, however, are the reason to visit. Watching the crashing waves against the towering cliffs as you stand on the very edge is mesmerizing.


The actual temple on the point

DCIM106GOPRO After soaking in the views, I decided to scoot even further, with no destination in mind. Winding down the main road, void of traffic, I passed by local Warungs, honked as I overtook cars, and smiled as I felt the wind blow through my hair. Then I found myself on a busy, much larger, straight road. No feeling of freedom here, so I took the next turn towards the ocean. Blindly, I wove my way through local neighborhoods, passed tempting street food, and took a random pattern of lefts and rights. I didn’t realize it until I got there, but I found Karma Beach, a private beach with an entrance fee of 25,000 Rupiah. Not on my budget, and never one to actually pay to lay in the sand, I summoned my inner younger brother, left the hotel and found my way to “the back entrance.” There were 350 steps leading down to the clear blue water, and they were free.


Taking the steps

The steps are not bad at all, and lead to the rocky shores of Karma beach. During high tide you won’t be able to get down using this route, unless you bring your flippers. I climbed over some rocks and found myself in the fancy beachside lounge area, equipped with an expensive bar, bean bags in the sand, umbrellas and the works. All I had to do was pretend like I stayed at the hotel, steal borrow a towel, and lay on a bean bag. The sun was shining so I chilled here for a few hours, soaking it all in.

The free side, still beautiful

The free side, still beautiful

Finally, I found myself scooting over to Bingin Beach, and this by far, was the most fun environment. I randomly ran into a friend from a week earlier in Amed, making the days way more social than before. This is a beautiful beach with the most community feel amongst travelers I experienced. Within a half of a day you know everyone, you can go behind the bar and grab a Bintang yourself , throw it on the tab and go back to the beach. There are plenty of surfers here, where the waves break in a tight tube over the reef. The reef during low tide is about half a foot deep, so not exactly for those green in the gills.


Bingin Beach sunset

After sunset, as I zipped down the main road back home, under the yellow half moon, I started thinking… getting down on myself for not surfing. But then I whipped around a turn, leaning into it so hard it felt like I was mountain biking again. Shirt off, helmet free. I looked at the stars with a gigantic smile and let out a child like laugh while I cranked it full throttle.

So yeah, I still don’t surf. But I’m thinking about buying a motorcycle.

Centered in Ubud

They are centered in Ubud. Spirited in their hearts and minds. It seems people arrive and never leave. They are beautiful here, living naturally, connected with themselves and their surroundings. This is all very true, however there is a large part of Ubud that feels manufactured, playing into the spiritual journeys being sought after a certain book and movie came out. 

Yoga and juice shops are a dime a dozen downtown. Generic handicrafts and paintings duplicated, allowing you to never miss out on purchasing that acrylic rice paddy photo, or that painted wooden egg. 


So to escape, I took a hike. Not far, but that’s the beauty of it. Step outside of the downtown block, and you will find authentic Ubud. Walk up the rice paddy hills, through the tall grasses where the snakes slither around your legs. Check your reflection in the still ponds, make sure you aren’t burned from the sun. Sit down, close your eyes, and breathe in the peace. 


I made it to the Karsa Kafe, a gorgeous cafe nestled into the rice terraces at the end of the hike. Sipping on a lime juice and honey concoction I watched the egrets swoop over the adjacent paddies. Without the noise of the motorbikes and car horns, the constant “transport, transport?” cat calls, it starts to make sense. Encouraged by the reflecting images of swaying trees in the mirror like rice ponds, this is a beautiful place for self reflection. 


I can see why millions come and spend millions more in Ubud. They call it the cultural center of Bali, but to become centered, the center you must leave behind. 

Borneo’s Second Fiddle – Climbing Mt. Trus Madi

Usually the highest mountain range achieves this lofty state just because it is the lead, and as such draws the most traffic. The second-highest just doesn’t get the attention, and often then is the better wilderness experience.” — Richard Bangs

Three Americans and a Brit, on America’s birthday, were going for a trek…

Borneo is often regarded for the difficult, yet tourist riddled climb of Mt Kinabalu, its tallest peak. For this weekend, we decided to gear up, climb the lesser known, relatively deserted, Mt Trus Madi, and let freedom ring.

This was my first real mountain climb. Searching the Internet for some more information, I came to the conclusion that this climb was nothing but steep slopes and physically trying. I try not to take much of this into consideration; there is no need to build up any sort of anxiety before ever trying it myself. Better off just getting stoked on the possibilities and forgetting about the negatives!

After a four-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to Keningau, with stops for durian and terap on the way, we met Dennis, our organizer for the climb. An adamant birder who can mimic different calls with ease, showed us a slide show of the previous group, and then our A frame stretcher hammock abode. After some salted fish and rice, we hit the hay, preparing for a 7 am departure. 

Dennis had told us a fast climb to Camp 2 would take roughly 5-6 hours. Always up for the challenge, we began to charge it. The first two kilometers were reasonably civil, walking along the river and crossing small sections of it as we wound our way towards the uphill. We spotted a Borneo Brown Pit Viper drowning head deep into a large snail shell, unsure who was actually winning the battle. We placed them to the side, letting them finish this unusual death match away from the main trail. 

Onwards we climbed, myself maybe too persistent on keeping pace with our ninja like guide, we silently hiked. One stop at the fresh stream to refill our water bottles with the delicious taste of iodine, which no lie, I was beginning to enjoy. We pushed on, stopping to spot beautiful Golden Naped Barbets and Ashy Drongos filling the air with noises other than the thumping of my heart.

The climb up to Camp 2 was pretty focused, cruising up the old logging road until we came across the beginnings of the enchanting ultramafic forest. For the last hour or so we leapt across springboards of moss-covered roots, slowing our pace to take in the beauty until we arrived at our destination for the day.

Camp 2 took us only four and half hours to get to, so we were officially the fastest guests Dennis and his guides have had. This was an ego booster, but then a realization in how unnecessary the quickness was when we were left baking in the sun for half of a day. The rest of the day was spent eating rice and canned pork, bird watching, and collecting awesome sun burns on our backs in preparation for the 2 am climb to the summit.

Looking out at Camp 2  © Charles Ryan

Looking out at Camp 2
© Charles Ryan

1:19 am and we hear “Charles! Charles are you ready?” – Our guide speaking to my friend Charlie. 

“What the f—“ I hear mumbled in the stretcher hammock next to me. “It’s 1 in the morning and it’s raining, I’m not getting up.” He said.

Well…something along those lines anyway. In all honesty it was foggy at that hour, but I remember grumblings of a possible mountainous manslaughter if he tried to make us get up an hour early.

Thoroughly pleased with the civil conversation that went down, we all fell back asleep until the rain stopped and it was 2 am.

Waking up around an hour later, we were pleased to hear the rain had subsided for our ascent, so we mixed up some 3 in 1 Nescafe coffee, dropped some iodine in our collected river water, turned on the torch and hit the trail.

I forgot to mention, my brand new torch had stopped working around 12 hours after purchasing it, but that’s a rant for another time, and a lesson learned about the Chinese black market of outdoor gear. Thankfully I was able to borrow another, and march ahead.

The night was black, the little lights we had clouded by the fresh layer of post rain haze. Again, our guide was ninja like, this time with the cover of the night sky to hide him ahead. And again, I felt the need to follow in his footsteps, like Ricky Bobby about to make the slingshot move.

We had heard about the steep ascent to the peak of Mt Trus Madi, and that its comparisons in difficulty to Mt Kinabalu lie within it. It’s funny, because normally in the jungle we are so cautious with our every step and especially our hand placement. But when its pitch black and you’re on a Freedom expression mission, you throw all that away and grab whatever the hell will help you up that 80-degree slope.

Flashlight in mouth, we trekked on, climbing natural ladders formed from the moist, moss covered root systems of the ultramafic forest. Pulling ourselves up ropes like we were in 5th grade gym class, the slopes seemed to extend into the night, nothing to gauge as a finish line yet in sight. We followed the light of our guide, who at times seemed to be directly over us.

You forget how cold it is outside when you are sweating like crazy, but then your backpack happens to hit an ice bucket of a pitcher plant, and it pours down your back. Consider that my ALS Ice Bucket challenge that’s sweeping the nation. This happened time and time again, from unsuspecting pitcher plants hanging by the thousands above us.

Three and a half hours later, we summit. For myself personally, it was a great accomplishment. For my first mountain summit, I felt ecstatic, amazed, and exhausted. So we got in our warm, dry clothes, hunched over and took a nap. Don’t worry though, the sun had ATLEAST another 45 minutes to rise, and it was so cloudy we weren’t going to see it anyways. Unfortunate, yes, but the feeling of accomplishment did not dwindle because of it.

After the nap, we made our way out of the mist and into the most spectacular forest I’ve seen. The sun illuminated the dark path we’d walked for hours, shining light on the thousands of pitcher plants above us, to our right, and to our left, brightening the dew covered reddish green moss that laid at our feet. Highlighting every little root cavern we climbed through and around to get to our peak.

Mt. Trus Madi summit  © Charles Ryan

Mt. Trus Madi summit
© Charles Ryan

I felt the need to charge to the top, but on the way down, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in Fern Gully or something. I can’t even remember that movie, but the title seems appropriate. The forest was stunning, and felt mystical.

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

We made our way down to the first peak, taking in the sights of Sabah we couldn’t at the top, and continued on our 12 km trek to the bottom.

The home stretch was supposedly just 1km, but this was easily the longest kilometer of my life. Toes beaten and bruised, legs wobbly and ready for that long car ride, mind exhausted and filled with joy all at the same time, Mt. Trus Madi provided gorgeous forests, and exciting trekking without the crowd, and most importantly for the occasion… The feeling of true freedom.