East Gate | Angkor Thom Complex | Cambodia



This place.  From the faces that look at you in smirks that even the Mona Lisa could not hold a flame up to, beckoning you inside the walled temple city.  The red dust that rises from sun baked dirt roads only to dampen in the late afternoon rain that only provides temporary relief from the heat.  Another world.  Another time.  From Thailand I went to the Philippines and then back to Thailand and then it was time to move on.  Somehow by then three and a half months had passed and I could not tell you what I have done.  Except that I had gone into a dreamland.

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Cats | Phuket, Thailand

Everywhere I went on my travels, I took photos of cats.  I have a special place in my heart for orange tiger kittens.


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Koh Rok | Thailand


I spent the first few days in Phuket in near agony: my legs were too stiff to move.  As a result, I spent most of my time lazing about on the beach.  I didn’t even bother taking my camera with me anywhere.  Then there was this fun little accident where I meant to go to Khao Lak, but accidentally ended up in Koh Lanta.  Surprise!  Had I not done that I would not have visited Koh Rok, which had some of the best snorkeling I have ever seen.

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Sunset | Karon Beach | Phuket, Thailand

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To the Top | Mount Kinabalu



After Mulu, I went back to Kuching.  I spent three more days there, but honestly I don’t remember much.  I recall sitting at the table staring at my toast in the dim fluorescent lit kitchen, looking at the brown edges, the lingering cigarette smoke stale in my throat, wondering when I should open my laptop and where I ought to next.  I didn’t want to leave.  I wanted to go back.  But I knew I couldn’t.  I had to keep going.




So I opened my laptop and decided to check out the other parts of Borneo.  Sabah, specifically.  And kind of on a whim, I decided that yes, I will climb a mountain.  I have never summited a mountain.  All the reports I read said it was doable and easy and any one can do it.  I sent off an email and the next day I got a response, that yes there was one spot available, but it was for two days from that morning.  Usually the spots are booked up half  year in advance.  Before I knew it, I was in Kota Kinabalu, trying to find a bus to take me to the mountain.




If there is anything I can say about Borneo people, it is this: they are absolutely kind, warm, and friendly.  My cabbie refused to leave me alone at the bus station, waiting patiently until I boarded a minibus (basically an over cramped minivan) and we were on our way to the mountain.  On the return trip, I was taken out to a football match of Sabah vs Kuala Lumpur by a few locals who just wanted to ensure I had a great time in Sabah.




My first night on the mountain, I saw some cats in cages.  Loud, cramped, and fat, I felt uncomfortably eating my dinner next to the kitchen while they were in cages.  I made a note to eat only vegetarian food for the remainder of my stay.  Early the next morning, they were nowhere to be seen.  Great, I thought.  I did my best to push aside my own cultural identity and recognize that just because don’t eat cats, doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.  I quickly ate my vegetarian breakfast and made my way to the entrance of Mount Kinabalu Nation Park.

My God, the sight of that mountain’s jagged peaks is a formidable scene.  That morning the crisp air allowed a clear viewing of what so many of us were going to attempt.  It is a perfectly safe climb, though my nerves were shot a little from accounts I had read earlier about a tourist who fell to her death.  And then I started talking to other would-be climbers.  Ropes?  Vertical ascent?  I am not cut out for that.  I mean, as soon I landed in Kuala Lumpur, some kind of depression hit me, and I succumbed–being the weak person that I am–and bought a pack of cigarettes.  I hadn’t been smoking that much, but still a few cigarettes a day is probably too many when you’re attempting a climb to 13,450 feet peak.  What have I gotten myself into?




There are two ways of attempting the Mount Kinabalu climb.  The first way (a really crazy way) is to attempt it in one day.  It is much cheaper to do a same day climb as you only need to pay the park fees and mountain guide.  You and your guide meet early in the morning and you set off giving yourself something like 6-8 hours to do the whole thing.  There are numerous gates and check points along the way at which you can rest, and some of them, you must be present by a certain time.  If you do not approach the last gate by 11 am or something like that, you will not be permitted to go any further.  The second approach–the way I chose to do it–is spread out over 2 days/1 night, but it cost more as it includes your meals and overnight accommodation at Laban Rata.  The cost you pay does not include the mountain guide.  Add to that there are different costs for foreigners and locals.




So that morning as I approached the Park HQ, I start questioning what I was doing there.  I am completely unprepared.  This isn’t Mulu.  The higher elevation meant cooler air, less humidity, and a landscape not unfamiliar to me.  I know this kind of place.  I asked around to see if I could split my guide fees with anyone else, and luckily the pair of two women I asked accepted.  Sometimes it’s nice to be a solo female traveler.  They happened to be from KL, so I managed to get in on the local price.  It was extremely fortunately for me as well as Gampat was assigned to us, and he spoke not one word of English and I hadn’t bothered to learn one word of  Bahasa.  The ladies were incredibly kind and translated a lot for me.  As we started our climb, the three of us begin to realize how unprepared we were.




“Surely you guys trained for this?” asked another climber at the third rest stop.  No, we shook our head in unison.  I mean, it’s supposed to be an easy climb, right?  I just walk up the mountain?  Perhaps I should have done a bit more research.  For the first hour or two, our group sped up the mountain until Gampat told us to slow down.  “It’s not a race,” he reminded us.



Look, do you see that first photo of the stairs?  How the path crumbled and gave way to rubble?  Those steps are actually pretty steep.  At times I had to climb them using all four limbs.  Well that pathway is only the beginning of the trail.  Soon it got worse.  And worse.  After every bend, every rest stop, ever ascent–I thought, it will get better soon.  No.  No, it did not.  It only got worse.  It would not relent.  My thighs burned.  I wanted to give up.  After the first hour.  Despite smoking again, I am pretty fit and am no stranger to physical exertion, but I came unprepared.  As we went up, there were people coming down, bearing smiles and grin, reassuring us, “It’s totally worth it, don’t give up.”  Their wobbly legs could hardly find even footing in the steep path– slippery and wet in some places, unstable and crumbling in others.




Laban Rata.  After five hours of stair master climb, we stopped for the night in a place above the clouds.  We ate our dinner euphorically, all of us dreading the 1am wakeup call to continue the remainder of the ascent in darkness.  Quite a few people had already retired for the evening, but some of us wanted to watch the sunset.  I wish I could have brought my DSLR, but I knew I couldn’t carry the weight.  In this post is one of my favorite photos of the sunset from the view deck of the rest house.  A diagonal line of trees.  A splash of color.  The flora there had a pale green tinge like the lichen in coastal redwood forests.  I love this color.  I watched the color stretch thin and blend into a black horizon even from the slit in the curtains from the top bunk in a room of five others.


1am came and alarms started to go off.  In groups of two and threes, we got up and prepared ourselves for our trek, enjoying a hot meal before setting off.  Most people couldn’t eat.  I could hardly but I knew I would need the energy, so I forced myself to swallow a few spoonful of eggs and a couple of sips of coffee.  I am a caffeine addict, but I didn’t want to upset my stomach or make the remainder of the climb any worse.  An hour later, we followed the beams of light bouncing in the dark up the mountain.  I’m glad we did some of the stretches in total darkness.  Nothing but our head torches.  There was one section where we had to walk on a ledge, our body hugged to the side of the rocky surface, our hands gripping the suspended rope that.  That part scared the shit out of me.  I couldn’t see anything at all and it seemed inevitable that I would fall and plummet to my death.


And the steepness doesn’t relent.  I mentioned that earlier.   We were lucky that night/early morning as the sky was clear and the weather good to us.  It’s freezing at that altitude.  Rain, sleet, snow–water is a common element that often comes out just to make the arduous journey that much more tortuous and unbearable.  Once the ropes make an appearance, they don’t go away.  They stay there.  To guide you.  As you walk up and up and up, all you see are dancing beams of light, turning off and on as people move their heads to gage what they’re seeing.  Gampat assured us we were leveling off and soon to reach the “flat section.”  Well, the flat section is still a slope, just left of a vertical incline.  We climb higher and higher in the darkness.  We are so high up, people are succumbing to altitude sickness.  Some have broken off from the group, huddling their own legs for warmth, with the lucky ones having a partner to hold.  My head starts to ache.  My fingers go numb.  I can see the two women in my group ahead of me and I wanted to cry.  This is hard.  Seriously hard.  My legs don’t want to go any further.  I am barely warm, ill dressed, unprepared, exhausted and just worn out.  I want to give up.  I looked at Gampat.  I shook my head.  He looked at me, pointing his finger to where a cluster of stars rested on the midpoint of the flat black canvas.  “The top, don’t give up.”  Still I shook my head.  It hurts, I muttered.  The next thing I know, Gampat has my hand, and not only is he leading me up the mountain, we are walking fast.   

First light.  The world became visible again, starting as shapeless splotches of colors until they bled into bright light, illuminating the lunar terrain.  I had never done anything as mentally, physically, or emotionally challenging as climbing that mountain.  But I did it.  And as soon as I was done, I wanted to get the hell off that mountain and onwards to a beach in Thailand.

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New + Old | Mount Kinabalu

The largest flower in the world, the rafflesia, only lasts a few days.  I think they’re still beautiful even when they have begun to fade.


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Sunset | Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu


Above the clouds, a diagonal line is a silhouette of trees.  The last light of day.  I watch as the colors drain from this world.  Before first light we will wake and into the dark we will go where our eyes cannot see and our feet do no want to go.  I rest my poor tired soles upon this granite moonface.  If I stop too long, I may not continue.  In the distance I see the dots of light stop, where before they were stars on this dark rock, blinking a kind of morse code.  There I will go and wait for the colors to return–if I can make it in time.

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Moth | Mount Kinabalu


Hello beautiful creature the size of my hand, in your glorious gradated black to white coloring.

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Moonface | Mount Kinabalu


A climber looking at his reflection in a frozen pool at the top of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

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Bejalai | Journey



You’re turning it up, and I’m breaking it down.  The sounds.  The sights.  The smells.  And even after all the laughter, the celebrations, the petals that gather in the wind, the sun angling down in slants, striking the chords of the water, the breeze on the waves, the way all your eyes sparkle, the little hands and tiny curling fingers, I am only here–a world away from home, a place that has existed in the depths of dreams and the recesses of imagination, and I can’t ever see myself going back to where everyone I know exists, not to the same home, not as the same me.


I remember.  From the large bed in an empty room, in the stifling heat of Penang, on the tenth day (or maybe it was the eleventh), I laid there, sick from the heat or maybe it was some street food that had been in the sun too long, realizing that I have comforted myself (and my stomach) with the familiar–I have been only to cities–and that the point of this trip isn’t to be somewhere familiar, but to go some place different, some place other.  It’s not that I wanted an escape from reality or that I was even running, but I wanted to enter a different world.  Whatever world San Francisco was when I boarded that plane to Vancouver, I needed it to not be the same when I boarded the plane homeward in Taiwan.


Each year I age.  I see the skin on the back of my hand becoming more textured, the wiry grays punching through my black hair, how my cheeks appear more angular and sharper through my sagging skin.  I know.  This is part of the process and there is beauty in becoming better.  While everyone around me seems to be having children, moving on in their careers, getting married, I feel–what?  Not stale.  Not stagnant.  Like I have yet to begin.  Like my whole life has yet to unfold.  I am only starting.  This is only the beginning.


In a smoky tattoo studio, talking to Robinson and Ernesto, about the Iban, about the local people, about Borneo, about skipping out on days of work to go fishing in the wilds of the jungle, not caring about money or fame, my heart raced and my skin burned from the ink, feeling kindred.  A dragon dog.  Transformation.  Bejalai.  At 15, the Iban mark their shoulders with the terung kuning, twin aubergine flowers tattooed on the shoulders.  To gain them strength and power (the straps of their backpacks go over these flowers) as they leave their longhouse and go out into the known world, into the depth of the jungle, away from the comfortable and familiar.  They seek their fortune, their future, their growth.  Each place they visit, each new skill they acquire, they further mark their bodies in commemoration, as tokens.  Tattoos on skin like stamps in a passport.  I had always said, if I ever end up in Borneo, this is where I will get tattooed.  So begins the transformation: the journey is the destination; this is mine.


Oh the sounds, that first night in the jungle, listening to the toads creak, the bats streaming by the millions out of the mouth of the cave, the birdsongs in the morning–I jumped the first time I heard the call of a baby hornbill because it sounded like a dying person’s laughter–and the plunk plunk of my feet on the wet wooden plank walk.  All of my life I had believed that I would end up a certain way, that I would have a certain kind of life, but as I got older and I started to live more, I fought my way through it all.  The truth is, I’m not ready for that kind of life.  I’m not ready to have that career, the perfect marriage, or beautiful children.  I envy my gorgeous sister for her lovely boys.  I covet the feeling of satisfaction from that job my friend has in which she has risen to a position of prominence.  I feel that I am still languishing somewhere in the shadow, waiting leagues and miles behind everyone else, trying to get my bearings, trying to fathom who I am in this world, trying to just understand.  What is this place?  Who am I in this world?


The electric wings beat back sunlight.  Raja Brooke butterflies are huge and can live for a year.  There aren’t just butterflies or giant moths, but also wood nymphs, in paler colors, but still in vibrant blues, cornflower, lilac, mint green, daffodil yellow.  In my heart I can still see this place as real as it was in front of me when I wandered on my own, alone, just me and the rhythm of my blood flowing through my veins.  The sounds, the sights.  I thought about my life.  Cities I have known and islands I have seen and through backstreets I have wandered and I have even been graced by the dancing northern lights in the frozen field of Alaska, but I had yet to see a fuzzy caterpillar wearing orange yellow boots walk in front of me.  Lion hunts I have witnessed and I have felt the vibration of the humpback whale’s call, but I had never heard the sound of the jungle– not the separate things but as an entity.  As a whole.  A symphony.


This is my journey.  This is my bejalai.  This is the true start of where I will cast off what has been safe for me, and go after the kind of life I want.  Without shame and without fear.  Because this is my life and it’s okay that it’s not the perfect one I had envisioned, that I have yet to write that novel, that I have yet anything to show what I have done.  If it scares me, if it frightens me, I will push myself to do it.  Chin up, back straight, eyes ahead.  Like crossing the street in Phnom Penh or Hanoi.  Walk right in.


A while ago I had a dream where my reflection said to me, “You have to go darker, you have to go deeper.”  I started with the jungle.  No, that’s not true.  I started by buying that plane ticket. It was just that Borneo was so unlike anything I had ever seen, but still everything I had imagined and more.  And though I have been back a few weeks now, I don’t feel that the journey has ended.  When I wrote about my visit to the refugee camp, I feared that things wouldn’t change, that wouldn’t change.  There had been nothing to fear.  Everything has changed;  I am different–I am made of fire.

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