Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

We continue with a bit of internet luck, so another update! Today, we’re at Danau Toba (Lake Toba), a peaceful and absolutely beautiful natural lake surrounding a volcanic island, here in Sumatra. This post is about our trip to Taman Negara, Malaysia some weeks ago. Taman Negara National Park is one of the oldest rainforest ecosystems on earth. It is older than the Amazon.

Taman Negara Map

Before sunrise, we boarded a minivan in Kuala Lumpur with a small group of other travellers and drove a few hours to Kuala Tembeling jetty on the Sungai Pahang River. Kuala Tembeling was the transfer point where we all had to fill out paperwork for rainforest permits and board the longboat for a two and a half hour ride down the river to the park. The scene below is quite representative typical lack of order we have come to enjoy.

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Queue? What queue?

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We were sent across the street to a strangely empty building to pay for our park permits

There was a cafe a few feet from the ticketing area, ready to monopolize on all passing through the area. Jette enjoyed some of their noodle soup.

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Tasty, but we think there was too much MSG in the food here.

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Loooooong noodles

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Local cats getting Jette’s attention

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Waiting area

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Welcome to the jungle

After some lunch, we walked another short distance down to the river to board our boat.

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Boarding the boat

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Away we go…

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Blue skies & muddy waters

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It was relaxing to be on a boat in these calm, if polluted, waters

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The vegetation and puffy clouds were so nice

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Muddy waters

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Most travellers were couples; since we are 3, we were a bit squished in our seats

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Our co-passengers were kind enough to get this shot of us on the boat

The area was quite peaceful and a welcome break away from the craziness and traffic in Kuala Lumpur.

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Chocolate water

The ride was quite lovely and peaceful, but really cramped and we were all happy to “disembark” into this little floating restaurant cum information station.

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So happy to be off the boat

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This was poor Jette trying to catch some “zzz’s” on the boat just before we landed

Our guesthouse was a little out-of-the-way place called Park Lodge, run by a former park ranger with a vast knowledge of the population of rhinoceros. He and his brother were running a fledgling little place, while care-taking for their elderly mother.

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Entry to Park Lodge

Our host gave us a warm welcome and walked us through his property, showing us an amazing variety of plants and trees that his mother had planted decades earlier.

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Our host cutting open a cacao pod that had dropped

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Excited to see the inside of a cacao pod for the first time

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The source of all things chocolate

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A pretty lemongrass plant

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Mmmmmm, lemongrass…

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Picking a kaffir lime leaf

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Coconut palms everywhere

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Another lovely little flowering plant

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Partially constructed building being overtaken by the jungle on site

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Our little cabin was through the left side door

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Abandoned steps at Park Lodge

The beautiful environment next to the river involved a sweaty hike of a few kilometers into and back out of town up and down some pretty steep hills.

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Walking into town

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You’d get fit walking this every day

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Most people had cars or scooters; we had our feet

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A view of the countryside along our walk to town

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Downhill from here

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The road to town with a frozen treat to cool off

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Hot sun, lush plants and lots and lots of trash

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Getting lost in a little village

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Walking down to dinner

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Puffy clouds

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This is a view from Taman Negara looking towards town

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Floating restaurants on the river with Taman Negara about a minute boat ride just across the river

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Another view from town down to the river

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The floating restaurant dining choices were simple

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Really simple

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Walking home after dinner catching this sunset was great

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Sun setting as we walked back to Park Lodge

The day we decided to explore Taman Negara started off great. We crossed the river and found the walkway in, crossing massive jungle vines along our way. The entrance to the Taman Negara national park is through a resort hotel called Mutiara.

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Entry to the Mutiara resort property

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More of the Mutiara property

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Mutiara resort, simple, yet the most developed spot in town

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Look at the scale of this vine!

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Nice walkway path into the jungle

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Always looking up

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An oldie and a goodie

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Such plant variety

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Lush!

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Flora

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Ouch!

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We love these old roots

As we continued to walk and walk, we were having a great, carefree time (foreshadowing).

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So much energy

It was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid. We were sweaty within minutes, but the rainforest was so green, so lush and so beautiful. We continued on, admiring our green environment as we walked and walked and walked.

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Notice anything besides the massive bamboo stand? Red faces and sweaty people.

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Another bamboo stand that dwarfs mere humans

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The path felt longer and longer

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I offered to carry Waco’s heavy, heavy bag for a bit so he could stretch

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Is there really a forest canopy walk somewhere around here?

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Wait up, guys!

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Oldest rainforest in the world

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Intense sunlight filtering through

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Roots

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Jette taking the lead

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Mushrooms

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The walkway system was extensive

Finally, finally, finally, we made it to the beginning of the forest canopy walkway. We had no idea that it would take us so long to get there. It was one of those instances where we had underestimated the power of the heat and humidity; the few kilometers to the walkway nearly depleted our energy. We were ecstatic to see the walkway.

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We are delirious (and possibly have heat exhaustion)

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So high up there

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Woo hoo!

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Worth the hike to get here

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Construction details

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Way way up

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Hello up there

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Skinny suspended path in the treetops

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Please be careful!!!

The walkway is 45 meters high above the 130 million year old rainforest, and constructed quite simply. It’s actually several long sections of walkways that wind this way and that, under the jungle canopy for 510 meters. We took photos on several sections of the walkway while it swung and swayed. After we finished walking across, we decided that it would be fun to continue our hike up to the highest part of the rainforest, where we were told there was a nice viewing area. We were already hot, tired and thirsty, so what could possibly go wrong? 

On we journeyed, making a few friends along the way.

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Mr. Snake

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He/she was relaxing on a stair railing

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Mr./Mrs. Spider

We also found mass groups of ants that we could hear as they crunched and worked.

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We walked and walked seeing some signs here and there to help us navigate a bit. The quality of way-finding signage varies greatly from country to country and place to place. Let’s just say that we have a bit of constructive criticism for Taman Negara in this regard.

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Leaving the shade for intense sun

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Admiring huge vines

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Impressive old trees

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Yes, there were signs

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We were happiest to see this one back to “town” just 600 meters

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Note the handwritten distance

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Hmmm, 1km or are there some missing zeros?

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If the trail is missing, does it count in the km hiked?

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This one isn’t completely obscured by foliage

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Watch out for missing handrails!

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Fallen tree? Just chainsaw a hunk out of it and move along

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We had to sit down several times on our hike up to the viewing area

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More stairs

But, after several hours and bucketfuls of sweat (and one poor tired girl on the verge of tears), we made it.

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Victory

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Can we please get some water now?

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Fluffy clouds and green mountains

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Another vista

We were all so happy to have made it. We were all also dehydrated and tired and hot and oh, so sweaty. Have I mentioned we were sweaty? The only thing we could think of was water. Precious water. We had run out of water hours into our foray and desperately needed more. We got downhill as fast as we could with the little energy we had left. We made a beeline for the Mutiara Hotel Restaurant that was conveniently located adjacent to the National Park.

We had been to the restaurant on another occasion and others in town. They all seemed to share one characteristic, sloth-like service. We decided that slow service was just something to chalk up to cultural differences and had accrued patience points for dealing with it. But today was different. Today, we needed water and we needed it now.

We must have looked pretty rough when we made our way into the poshest place around for miles. Rather than the usual calm, collected game of waiting for someone to bring us menus, we sat down and immediately gave hand gestures and motions to the group of disinterested waiters and busboys standing around chatting. We need water (pouring water hand signs), water please (drinking out of a pretend glass), water (more gestures). To our surprise, we received action!

Oh, you precious glass of ice, cold life-giving water. We love you so so much.

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This young lady is a tough sweetie!

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Jette enjoyed a “fancy” re-energyzing salmon lunch after hydrating

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We love the round banana leaf plating aesthetic at Mutiara’s restaurant

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Mutiara resort restaurant

The jungle is not to be underestimated; it will zap every ounce of energy and moisture from your body. We all recovered just fine, and walked back to our little cabin for a restful sleep that night.

Jette was wanting more though, so on our last day, we walked a different direction, to a calm, little swimming spot.

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Willing to hike again if it means swimming, too!

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Clear-ish?

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Unspoiled

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Getting toes nibbled by fish

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Hug-time

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Pure nature (and some litter of course)

This was such a picturesque spot and we’re really glad we made the effort to see it. We arrived in the late afternoon, enjoyed dusk here and then a very dark, early evening walk back through the jungle, just coming to life with nocturnal sounds and sights. A beautiful bat made his way across our path; he was illuminated by our phone light as he flew in and out of a hollowed log. We stood still in the darkness for a while to observe and reflect how very far and away from home we were.

Our final treat of the evening came in the form of a tapir that wandered up to the Mutiara Resort’s restaurant, where we had decided to have dinner again. When the restaurant manager saw the tapir, he brought out watermelon rinds and other fruit peelings for him. The vegetarian tapir was happy and so were all of the restaurant guests who came out with their cameras and snapped away as the tapir feasted. We were thrilled to be able to see the beautiful animal, but of course, saddened simultaneously. The fact that this tapir was dependent upon the food provided by the restaurant could only mean he does not have enough food in the remaining bit of his natural jungle, or that he has lost the ability to forage for his own sustenance. It possibly means some combination of both; either way, it is disheartening, indeed.

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This dinner was happily interrupted by a tapir

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This curry was really good, but checking out a giant tapir was better

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Well, hello there

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I think I’ll wander a bit

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Jette thought the tapir was “adorable”

The next morning, we were back on the road, passing through Kuala Tembeling and its MSG-packed cafe.

Hello from Volcano Sibayak

Yesterday we climbed to the top of Gunung Sibayak, a volcano near Berastagi, Sumatra, Indonesia. We got up at 4 am and made it to the top rim of the volcano just as the sun was rising. It was awesome!

The video above is just a quick “Hello” but we are working hard to get a full post up with all the details on the volcano experience as well as our recent adventures in the rain forests and urban jungles of Sumatra.

My Underwear and the Second Fattest Country in the World

I’m going to lay it all out there and show you my underwear in this post. Aren’t you excited? Wooohooo!

It’s no secret that Americans are FAT and getting fatter.

The first day our plane landed in Amsterdam we were shocked by all the skinny people and the very obvious absence of obesity. It was true through most of Europe, and doubly so here in SE Asia. Most adults in Thailand and Laos would fall in the healthy “normal” range on the body-mass-index (here’s more info on BMI and how to calculate yours). A “normal” BMI ranking translates to “skinny as hell” on the official US scale!

BMI Table

The US is the second “fattest” country on the planet with the average adult BMI of almost 30 – borderline “Obese.” In Thailand, the average BMI is 23.6. Here’s an interesting graphic that shows BMI by country (click to enlarge):

Click to enlarge

Statistics, tables, and charts are great, but they say a picture is worth a thousands words. So in that spirit, let’s dispense with numbers and move on to my underwear. That is why you’re here, right?!

I typically wear Jockey boxer briefs, size XL. The other day I popped into a department store here in Bangkok to pick up a couple extra pairs. They didn’t have the Jockey boxer briefs I typically wear, so I bought a pair of Jockey bikini briefs, size XL (the largest size they have). When I got back to the hotel and opened the box, this is what I discovered:

US vs. Thai size 'XL'

US vs. Thai size ‘XL’

Obviously, the pair on the bottom is a size “XL” from the US and the pair on the top is a size “XL” from Thailand.
This picture says it all.

Bangkok Queen of Snakes

Bangkok Queen of Snakes

Bangkok Snake Farm

Bangkok Snake Farm

Yesterday we went to the Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. It is a Red Cross facility that breeds and houses snakes – particularly venomous snakes – indigenous to Thailand. They extract venom, conduct research, and produce anti-venom.

There is also an educational “snake farm” open to the public, which is essentially a snake zoo and learning center. They had fantastic exhibits on the evolution and anatomy of snakes, reproduction, the role of snakes in the local ecosystem, different types of venom and their effects in humans and other animals, and more. There were live snakes, preserved specimens, example dissections, scale models of snake anatomy, and multimedia presentations. It was fantastic.

Great exhibits at the Snake Farm

Great exhibits at the Snake Farm

Incubtor

Incubtor

Preserved specimens

Preserved specimens

They also had a snake show where staff members brought out a variety of snakes – both venomous and non-venomous – for up close viewing. The snakes were neither defanged, nor recently milked of venom, so watching the handlers with them was a bit nerve-racking!

There was a set of bleachers and low wall separating the audience from a walkway. As you can see in the video below, the snakes were presented by the handlers in the walkway, sometimes held, sometimes placed on the floor. The only protective gear the handlers wore were simple rubber boots. Yikes!

The first snake they brought out was a large King Cobra. Well, since King Cobras can grow to more than 18 feet, I guess this one wasn’t too large, but it was certainly big enough!

Did you know that the venom of the King Cobra is neurotoxic? Or that the venom of the Siamese Cobra is 5 times more powerful than the venom of the King Cobra? Now you do.

Neurotoxic Venom

Neurotoxic Venom

If you are wondering how you pick up a deadly king cobra when you are finished teasing it, it’s really easy. Here’s how:

See? Easy!

After the cobra, they brought out about a dozen other snakes commonly found in Thailand. Most they held in their hands or set on the floor, but they brought out the pit vipers curled around branch-like sticks.

Pit viper on a stick

Pit viper on a stick

Because the pit vipers have heat receptors (their “pits”) they are much more likely to strike the warm flesh of the handlers if held by hand. Fun. The snake was not just sitting still on the stick, it was constantly moving. So the handler did a sort of slow-motion juggling routine shifting the stick from hand to hand and moving his grip on the stick to avoid provoking a strike.

Here is an interesting snake found in Thailand – the Copperhead Racer.

Aggressive little fella, huh? Thankfully he is non-venomous. Copperhead Racers typically eat small rodents and other small animals, so they are beneficial in controlling the populations of rats and mice. Cobras like to eat Copperhead Racers.

At one point the M.C. of the show asked the audience what snakes are doing when they stick out their tongues. Jette raised her hand and he called on her for the answer. She knew it. That was cool!

Even cooler, at the end of the show he asked for a volunteer from the audience. Once again, Jette was the one chosen.

When we walked through the exhibit later, a couple of Thai ladies smiled at Jette and said she was a “hero”! We crowned her the “Queen of Snakes.”

Needless to say we had a fun, educational experience at the snake farm. It was a good day.

Singapore Haze

We’ve been visiting good friends in Singapore and having a really fun time despite the smokey haze that is plaguing the city. The smoke is from the “slash and burn” fires on palm oil plantations in Indonesia. I don’t know if western media is covering it, but Singapore and much of this part of SE Asia has been choking in this smoke for weeks. It’s really horrible.

As you can see, when we are outside, we’ve been wearing “N95” masks that (hopefully) filter out much of the dangerous particulates. I doubt they help much with the sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. Lots of people here wear the N95 masks. In fact we had a hard time finding stores that had the larger masks in stock. They are in high demand!

There are a number of smartphone apps that track the levels of “haze” or air pollution. The specific measure they use in Singapore is the PSI (Pollution Standards Index) which is an air quality index (AQI).

haze levels

Note the level of 274. This is from yesterday afternoon. Here’s what the numbers in the index mean from a potential health standpoint:

psi

The Straits Times newspaper here in Singapore has a good Guide to the #haze with maps of the locations of the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo), and descriptions of the causes and potential health effects of the peat fires.

Fires

Until we arrived in Singapore and experienced the conditions here (and the health effects on us) we were planning to stay about a week and then go to Northern Sumatra. The idea was to study the Sumatran ecosystem and rainforests, land use, and local cultures – much like we did with the Rhine River. But with the fires still burning and the air as dangerously polluted as it is, we now have to come up with another plan. We’re going to spend tomorrow inside at the main library doing some research and deciding on our next moves.

In just the few days that we have been here, we can really feel the health effects of the toxic air. Mila has been fighting a sore throat and we just put Jette to bed with a horrible headache. I can feel it in my nose and throat too.

Nasty stuff this slash and burn. It’s ironic that one of the very things we came to study is going to drive us away. Thankfully, we have a choice. It is already proving to be a powerful and memorable lesson.

 

click to see more photos on DW.com

click to see more photos on DW.com