After three months exploring Indonesia, from Sabang (Indonesia’s westernmost city) to the Banda Islands (where nutmeg originates) in the eastern part of the country, James and I traveled across Southeast and South Asia to continue retracing the ancient Spice Route. The journey took us to three other countries in Southeast Asia, also three in South Asia, including two countries I had never been to before: India and Nepal.
Even though the Spice Route is the main theme for this six-month trip, our journey is not strictly limited to trading ports and spice plantations. In most places we ventured further beyond the original Spice Route to explore historical sites in each country, which later provided me with a better understanding and knowledge of the deep connections among nations in the region long before the Europeans arrived – which are rarely mentioned in history books at school. I am now in Pokhara, Nepal in the final week of this six-month long Spice Odyssey. Here are the highlights of the rest of our journey, from Malaysia to Nepal.
We visited Penang and Malacca not only for their historical importance as major trading ports in Southeast Asia during colonial times, but also the multicultural scenes in both places. Thanks to merchants and immigrants from China, India, Arabia, Europe, and various islands in the region who came to find their share of fortune, Penang and Malacca’s cultures and dishes today reflect their long history as melting pots in the region.
Apart from historical and cultural reasons, we also went to Malaysia due to practical reasons as James had to leave Indonesia every 30 days when his visa on arrival expired.
Sri Lanka was our next destination, chiefly for one particular spice. It is the source of Cinnamomum verum, true cinnamon, a fact not known by European traders until the Portuguese arrived in 1505. Our two-week exploration of the island nation started in a beach town called Hikkaduwa, our base to do a day-trip to Madhu Ganga where the traditional processing of cinnamon (from bark to rope and oil) is still practiced by the locals.
We went to Galle afterwards which has been a major trading port on the southwestern corner of the island even before the Portuguese sailed into the Indian Ocean. Then we continued our journey to Kandy in the heart of Sri Lanka, from where we did multiple day-trips to some of the nation’s most important historical sites in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla, collectively known as the Cultural Triangle.
Our journey on the island ended in its biggest city, Colombo, a multicultural and increasingly sophisticated city which has been witnessing an increasingly laid-back attitude towards tourists after decades of tight security due to the civil war.
We went to Bangkok as well because there was no direct flight from Sri Lanka to our next destination, Myanmar. However instead of just staying one night at or near the airport, we opted to stay in Silom at the center of the city where quality street food was just a few steps away from our guesthouse.
It was my third time in the city, but James’ first, so obviously we decided to visit its most famous site: the Grand Palace. We took the ferry and cruised along the Chao Praya River to get to Rattanakosin Island, the location of the city’s jewel. Despite the relatively recent bombings in the city, Bangkok was as popular as it has always been.
“I’m glad we went to Bangkok before Yangon.”
It was James’ spontaneous response when we arrived at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon. Resplendent in gold, Shwedagon is only one of many invaluable heritage sites across the country, a testament to the might and wealth of the kingdoms that once ruled in modern-day Myanmar.
From the jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring ancient temples in Bagan to crumbling and neglected shrines at Indein near Nyaung Shwe (gateway to Inle Lake), and the last Burmese palace in Mandalay, our two-week journey in the fast-changing country was full of surprises, inspiration, and contemplation. The fact that we were there less than one month before the country’s first true general elections since 1990 helped shape our mood.
India was an attack on our senses. It is a country where those who have been end up either loving or despising it. There’s no such thing as moderation, it’s always at both extremes. After staying overnight in Chennai we flew to Goa via Mumbai. Goa was one of our must-see destinations for this Spice Odyssey as it held an important role as a Portuguese trading post along the Spice Route.
From Goa we took a detour to Hampi in Karnataka before going back to the Malabar coast. Kochi was our starting point in Kerala before going to Kumarakom to explore the famous backwaters, and continued north to Anachal, not far from Munnar in the Keralan highlands, to see a spice garden.
We crossed the majestic mountains that border Kerala with Tamil Nadu and arrived in Madurai to stay within walking distance from Meenakshi Amman Temple, one of the biggest and most important Tamil temples. From Madurai we went eastward and stayed in Thanjavur (to see Brihadeeswarar Temple), Kumbakonam (to visit Airavatesvara Temple), Pondicherry (to explore its French colonial heritage), Mahabalipuram (an unplanned visit to the Shore Temple), and finally Chennai to meet one of our favorite bloggers, Madhu.
It was Madhu who suggested us to go to Goa first and save Tamil Nadu for the later weeks of our trip as it would coincide with the beginning of the Northeast Monsoon. Thanks to her, and our unbelievable luck with the weather, our trip in Tamil Nadu by and large went smoothly – despite some difficulties we encountered on our way to Pondicherry due to flooded roads – and we left Chennai just days before the NE Monsoon wrought havoc and caused the worst flooding in the state’s capital in a century.
Before flying to Kathmandu we stayed overnight in Kolkata and experienced firsthand the city’s notoriously overcrowded neighborhoods – although maybe that’s the case with many cities in northern India. That needs another month of traveling, if not more.
On April 25, 2015 a powerful earthquake shook Nepal, the worst to hit the country since 1934. It was then followed by strong aftershocks even long after the first devastating tremor. Images of destruction across the country were broadcast on international news channels. Not only were we saddened by the loss of lives and the damage to many historical sites, but we also discussed whether we should carry on with our plan to visit Nepal in December or not.
If our trip were just a few weeks or months after the disaster, we would probably have cancelled it altogether since we might only bring an extra burden to the rescue efforts. However it was eight months after April, and a friend of James’ who lives in Kathmandu assured him that we should still come to help rebuild the economy since the country is heavily dependent on tourism.
We couldn’t be happier to arrive in Nepal earlier this month despite the unofficial blockade of fuel, medicines, and other supplies imposed by India over recent political tensions between the two neighbors. Going from one place to another cost considerably more and hours of power outages occurred on a daily basis across the country.
We started our journey in Bhaktapur, one of the ancient sites in the Kathmandu Valley inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Then we moved to the capital, Kathmandu, from where we did half-day trips to Patan (Lalitpur) and Kirtipur. We continued westwards to the country’s second largest city, Pokhara, before going back to Kathmandu to wrap up this six-month long Spice Odyssey.
What did I get from this trip?
1. Stories and photos. Six months of traveling has guaranteed me lots of material for my future posts, although deciding how I’m going to write them is another challenge
2. Never-before-learned history lessons. Some places I visited on this trip have deep historical and cultural connections with places I’m familiar with in Indonesia. But people from both sides often forget about them or are completely unaware of them. Through this blog I intend to raise people’s awareness of those long-lost connections
3. Understanding, that a lot of bad things in the world happened because of misunderstanding. Traveling helps me understand others’ perspectives to get a bigger picture of why things happen, rather than relying only on what is reported in the media. I learned how we, ordinary people who love traveling, have the potential to become agents of change amid prejudice and stereotyping in the world
4. Acknowledgement, that as travelers we must also embrace our role as ambassadors. During this trip I got questions about Indonesia from those who knew very little about it. The questions ranged from how most people were unaware of the size of the country, like “I went to a small port in Indonesia, what’s the name?”, to “Does Indonesia use the euro?”, and someone even asked me “Are Muslims in Indonesia pious?”
5. New friends, which I believe most of you can relate to. Along the way I made friends with some really nice people, but it was inevitable that some strange people also crossed my path, including our guide in Kirtipur who ended up a little drunk and talked to us in German, French, Dutch, Italian, and Danish
On a side note
Now I am going to settle back in Indonesia and try to find a new job, because I don’t think I can travel full-time for years like some people do. It’s not for me. I was surprised to learn that at several points I actually missed dealing with challenges at work. This makes me believe that instead of focusing on work-life balance and finding where the balance is, it’s better to focus on living a life you won’t regret. Some people love working and being busy, some love having a lot of time to just relax. Some prefer to not do any works on weekends, some opt for doing a little bit of work before weekdays come. Whatever it is, make sure you won’t regret your choice by understanding the risks and consequences, including whether you decide to become a full-time traveler, embark on long-term travel every now and then, or just do short trips.
But if you ask me whether I want to do this kind of extended travel again in the future or not, I certainly would!
After six months of traveling across seven countries in Southeast and South Asia, here comes a busy year of blogging ahead. Thank you again for reading and leaving comments on my previous posts, and I will try to catch up with your blogs as soon as I’m home. Happy holidays and see you in 2016!