Hey Everyone,

This message is Same Same but Different.

I guess it has been awhile since you have gotten an e-mail update from me. Since I got out of jail in Bangkok :-), I have been trekking through countries in southern Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and now Vietnam. I have had some interesting experiences and will try to briefly communicate them here.

After briefly flying into Singapore and meeting my British friend - Martin, we quickly left for the Malaysian Island of Borneo. (The ethnic fighting was on the Indonesian side and not the Malay side and therefore we were not affected.)

We spent about a week making our way north through SARAWAK visiting two National Parks including the NIAH caves. The Niah caves are huge and are the home to many millions of bats and swiftlets who make there entry and exit nightly creating a huge black swarm. (The bats are exiting while the birds are entering.) This is also where the locals dangerously climb huge bamboo poles to collect the birds nests as they can easily fetch up to $1000 per Kg. The swiftlet nests are a delicacy used to make soup.

In SABAH, the northern part of Borneo, Martin and I stopped off on the Island of SIPADAN - well known for its incredible diving (and kidnappings last year). It is very small and one can walk around the island in 15 minutes. The best part is that a 600 meter deep wall lies just 10 meters from the beach making for great beach dives. Sipadan is also known for its sea turtles. On one dive alone I spotted over 25 and had 6 in my sight at one time. For those of you who dive, you know that that is a rarity. That same dive, I also encountered a school of about 100 barracuda and a 6 foot hammerhead shark. Wow!

After Sipadan, it was off to SEPILOK - one of two Oran-gutan rehabilitation centers in Borneo. Because farming has destroyed much of their habitat, the Oran-guatan has become an endangered species. Here we were able to get very close to these gentle primates and see them in their natural state. They were so cute, I wanted to take one home.

The last adventure in Borneo was climbing MOUNT KINABALU - the highest peak in SE Asia rising 4101 meters above sea level. It took us a full 2 days to reach the summit and back. Unlike my Everest trek where it took 9 days to reach that height, you can see that we had pretty much a straight UP the mountain climb. At the top though, we had spectacular views all the way to the coast and Kota Kinabalu over 60 miles away. The hardest part wasn't the climb up but the climb DOWN. I could barely walk for 3 days afterwards.

Back on the mainland, Martin & I went to KUALA LUMPUR. It is a pretty vibrant capital city and is home to the Petronas Twin Towers, two of the highest buildings in the world. Here we were also able to attend the Rugby World Seven Series tournament with Roz and got to see some of best rugby teams compete against each other. Thanks also to Roz for letting us stay at your wonderful flat.

Last stop in Malaysia were the PERHENTIAN Islands just off the east coast. Again more sandy beaches to lay on and more diving. aaahhhh...

On the way between Sarawak and Sabah, we stopped off in the Kingdom of Brunei (home of Sultan Bolkiah who is reportedly the World's 2nd richest man after Bill Gates.) He has squandered much of the country's money building his 1788 room palaces, buying hundreds of Roll Royces and Ferarris. (He rides in a different colored one everyday.) We asked our Brunei driver what he thought about the ridiculous spending habits but couldn't get the guy to admit any wrong-doing. It seems everyone loves the Sultan. We even went to an amusement park built by the Sultan as a gift to his people. Though not quite as big as Disney World, it was quite impressive in size. Since the first 4 years that it was open, the whole park (and rides) were free. Everyone in Brunei has been, I'm guessing, at least 50 times, so now on a good night they might be no more than 100 people in the whole park. Its great for the lines but the atmosphere sucks.

It is in Brunei that I met Tom and Pia (from Norway and Sweden). I only mention it here as we end up running into them 5 more times throughout Thailand until we eventually decide to travel together for 2 weeks through Thailand and Cambodia.

I guess I could go on and on about the wonderful beaches of Trang, Koh Mook, Krabi, Rai Lay, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket, Koh Pha-Ngan, and Koh Tao but it would get repetitive.

I will however mention highlights. First was on KOH MOOK where we were told about a cave that opened to a small lagoon and beach. The boat put us into the water at the entrance. We started swimming thru but the cave made a zigzag which meant we were floating/swimming in pitch blackness for a couple of minutes before we saw light opening up into the secret lagoon. It was pretty eerie but exciting at the same time.

Then we made it over to KOH PHI PHI LAY which is where the movie "The Beach" was filmed. Yes, it is every bit and more like the movie. The water was crystal clear and the lagoons around the island were turquoise green. It made for great swimming.

May 7th was a special day of the month. The moon was at its brightest which meant only one thing - FULL MOON PARTY on KOH PHA-NGAN!! This party has been held every full moon for the last10 years and is very famous among SE Asia travellers. Once a month, between 5-7 thousand revellers show up for the rave parties on HAT RIN Beach. The party is wild and starts to get going about 10PM and lasts until 11AM the next morning.

Martin, Barry, and I showed up 4 hours before the party and managed to find beds for $5 just behind one of the main bars. We met up with Tom and Pia again and two Danish girls they had met and also with Simon another Brit I climbed Mt Kinabalu with. (I would end up travelling w/ Simon for the next 2 months.) The 8 of us hit the party hard by drinking "buckets" - a concoction of Whiskey, Red Bull and Sprite all mixed in small plastic buckets.

The rave music went on and on and so did the dancing. Soon the sun started to rise on the horizon. By 8 AM, there were still a good 3000 people raving. I managed to make it until about 10 before I stumbled back to my bed I finally got up about 5 that evening because my stomach was calling for food (and aspirin).

Of course after the party there were thousands of people moving on to other destinations including ourselves. This meant for over crowded boats. Barely OK in calm seas but a possible catastrophe in rough weather. The first boat to KOH TAO was probably 30 people overloaded for a speedboat with a capacity of 30. For 1 hour we rode with white knuckles on the roof of the boat. However 2 days later, we didn't have such luck. A storm had blown in the previous night making the seas pretty rough. Before we bought our tickets we were ensured by the operator the boats would not be overloaded. However when time came to board, this was not the case. Our small group of 6 (Martin, Barry, Tom, Pia, Simon and I) were put up front on the bow of the speedboat. The rest of the boat was filled to capacity with more sitting on the floor. No sooner than 3 minutes out of the harbour and into the open water, our boat was hit by a wave head on. All of us up front got soaking wet. The first wave was small and we were all smiling about how fun the journey was going to be. However when a 2nd and a 3rd much bigger waves came over the bow and filled it with water, we were listing quite low. By this time every was screaming for the captain to return (which he did.) It would have only taken 1 more wave before the whole boat would have capsized.

An hour later we were put onto a long thin steel boat that was similar to a canal boat from Amsterdam. This gave us some confidence but... when we got out into the open sea again, the long thin boat would crest on two waves and the front would then slam down causing the middle of the boat to bend and shake violently. We all thought the boat would nap in half and so all of us donned life jackets and again sat on the roof for the 5 hour journey to the mainland. Another white knuckled cruise that we all wouldn't want to repeat. I can see how ferry boat accidents happen in this part of the world.

We spent a couple of nights relaxing in Bangkok. Still a wild city as ever. We managed to get to a Thai kick boxing match which is a Thai pastime. There are matches every night in one of the two main stadiums. There aren't many rules and they can use all parts of their bodies to knee, elbow, punch, kick and head butt the other. They literally try to kick the crap out of each other - legally!

Still travelling with Martin, Simon, Tom & Pia, we decided to overland it to Cambodia instead of flying. We had heard horror stories about the treaturous 14 hour journey from Bangkok and the huge potholes big enough to swallow cars. Looking back, the journey wasn't that bad compared to the one we would take 4 days later from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It took us over 12 hours to negotiate the 330 km (200 miles) journey. Quick math tells you we averaged only 17 MPH. This included the two flat tires we got and the many times that the wooden planks across washed out bridges had to be adjusted to the width of our vehicle. Hey that is why we backpack, we are in for the adventure.......

The highlight of Cambodia is of course the Angkor temples around SIEM REAP which include among others Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. I don't know how to describe in any other words these remarkable and incredible temples built by ancient civilizations. The architecture and detail that went into them was amazing. Hopefully it remains that way but since the recent movie "Tomb Raider" was filmed there, I am sure thousands will soon realize this hidden wonder and descend upon it in swarms. One can already see the over building of hotels in Siem Reap. Hopefully the roads will still be a deterrent for a few more years.

Now for the sad and shocking part of Cambodia. I am talking about the Genocide that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime and the millions who died. In PHNOM PENH, we rented motorcycles and drove out to the Killing Fields where many met their ends. There is a memorial containing hundred of skulls and one can see ax or blunt object marks/holes made by the tormenters. Pretty sick and saddening.

My friend Martin had to leave to continue his trip to S. Africa but that day, I met up with 2 of my former Irish friends / colleagues from Ballina. (Karl and Jenny McEntee) They aren't married yet but close enough.

We all headed down to the Southern Cambodian beaches in SIHANOUKVILLE. These beaches are pristine and deserted and have yet been discovered by the Europeans.

We had heard that Visas for Vietnam were the easiest and quickest to come by in S-ville and decided to try it out. Despite there being no embassy or consulate in the town we handed over our passports to our guesthouse (along with $35) at breakfast and before we had finished eating 45 minutes later we had valid 30 day entry visas. Don't ask how it was done.

One last thing we did in Cambodia was go to an artillery range and shoot M16 and AK-47 Automatic Rifles. One shows up and orders which gun and how many rounds from a menu. There are grenades and rocket launchers for $150 and we had heard by rumor, we could arrange for chickens and a even a cow for an extra $150. However, we didn't see any around the area so it probably was rumor. One never knows in Cambodia.....

Our group got considerably smaller as Tom and Pia left for home and Jenny and Karl and Rachel headed north to Siem Reap. By this time my friend Simon and I had hooked up with 2 Canadians (Julie and Ali) and we would travel through Vietnam together.

First stop was SAIGON. (Yes, the visas worked and we crossed the border with no problem.) We took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels the VietCong had built to move around undetected by the Americans. Despite them being enlarged for the tourists, some parts we still had to crawl on our hands and knees to get through the hot, dark, damp tunnels. I don't know how they did it with a war and bombs falling outside.

At the war remnants museum, the war is referred to as the "American" war and everything in it is totally pro-Vietnam and Anti-American. It was interesting to see the perspective from the other point of view despite the propaganda.

Heading up the coast, we stopped in NHA TRANG to do some scuba diving. The first dive was alright and included some swim thru's but the 2nd dive should have been called "Sandy Bottom" as that is pretty much all we saw.

HOI AN is famous for its tailors. One can get clothes and suits custom made within 24 hours. I couldn't resist the urge and had a full tuxedo made with extra jacket, two shirts, a vest, 5 bow ties and 4 cummerbunds, a pair of trekking pants and a bathing suit all for under $80. What a bargain!!

HUE is just south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that was established between the north and the south. One tour operator runs tours up to some of the famous military sites such as Khe Sanh Combat base, the Rockpile, and Dakrong Bridge where some of the fiercest fighting took place during the conflict.

Currently I am in HANOI before heading north to the hill tribes of SAPA and to climb Fan Si Pan - the highest mountain in Vietnam. I guess I kind of got into this climbing thing.

Simon and I will then head to Laos for a couple of weeks before he has to fly home to the UK. I will continue on to Burma and then China before heading home in OCTOBER still on my schedule.

As usual, I have posted pictures to my Yahoo photo site. I had to change back to the US server as I had problems with the Indian one. The uploaded photos only go up to Thailand. Internet cafes in Cambodia and Vietnam have been too slow. I will try to upload those pictures when I am back in Bangkok and will let you know when I do.

The web address is:

India and Nepal photos are still at:

Haven't heard from many of you in the past 2 months so hopefully you can pull yourselves away from work for a second and let me know what you are up to. I am always happy to get news from you.

All the best, MIKE

Ps. If you are wondering about the term "Same Same but Different", it is used all over SE Asia to describe how tour company services compare to another or how hotel services compare. It soon becomes a joke among backpackers to use it to describe anything from temples to restaurants.


copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Hopkins - all rights reserved
revised NOVEMBER 2008