Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

We fled Phuket in a blur of absurdly long bus and van rides to the boarder to Malaysia. Our destination was to one of the country’s 13 states, Penang, an island just off the northwest coast.

I’ll never forget the man who stamped our passports. My whole life I’ve been confronted by stern unbending men and women who demand quick short answers to monotonous questions about why the hell I’m enter their country.

Penang, Malaysia

We pulled up to the customs officer and handed over our passports. He immediately asked “where’s Jerry Benton with beard?” After we sorted out the beardless mum situation, and recommended he starts growing one, the jokes started flying.

“So American? You like Barack Obama? Yeah Obama. He used to smoke weed. We all call him Barack oGanja!” Somewhere amidst our confusing state of laughter – as I’ve never even comfortably cracked a smile crossing any boarder – the conversation moved towards Ben’s home state of Colorado as he scanned “Beardless Jerry’s” passport.

“Ah, Colorado. Ganja is legal in Colorado right?” More laughter ensued. Ben replied how “it is legal now in Colorado” and the officer should visit some time if he’s interested in that type of activity. “You’re welcome to stay with me. After all, you have all my contact and passport information”.

Once the out-of-line hysterics settled down, we got back in the car for the final leg of our trip.

The driver dropped us off in, what was to us, a totally random and unidentifiable part of Penang. We stuck out, but there were enough fellow tourists and backpackers to feel some sense of safety.

We got out of the van, looked around, picked a direction and started walking until we stumbled upon a hostel. The accommodations were simple, and just what we needed; a few beds and air conditioning, with some filthy communal showers to go with it.

Turns out we were dropped off in Georgetown, the historic area of the city which has become Malaysia’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bustling area fused impressive architecture with vibrant nightlife into an eclectic allure that offers something for everyone.

Penang, Malaysia

I found a fascinating photography micro-museum just two blocks from the hostel. Their collection displays the evolution of the camera in a very unique way. The original forms and ideas, all the way through modern digital models are arranged in chronological order spanning over 200 archives and artifacts.

The Camera Museum, Penang, Malaysia

A WWII era camera on display was once used to train pilots. Shaped like the machine gun it imitated, this camera was capable of shooting 10 frames per second while mounted on the wing. The photographs could then be viewed to review accuracy of the pilot’s “shots”.

Penang, Malaysia

Scooters are a must (in any place we go). We took them all through the city, exploring Little India, sushi restaurants, bowling alleys, Kek Lok Si Temple and the Penang Bridge, which spans 8.4 miles and connects mainland Malaysia with Penang.

http://youtu.be/gao7j2WPmKQ

Kek Lok Si is said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. The pinnacles tower over the surrounding mountains of George Town. Perched at the peak sits a 99 foot bronze statue of a Buddhist deity. Views from the temple span the entire island.

Kek Lok Si, Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

Kek Lok Si, Penang, Malaysia

Kek Lok Si, Penang, Malaysia

Kek Lok Si, Penang, Malaysia

As long as you and your friends can keep your hands off the animals and not defile immaculate religious sites, you will enjoy all Penang has to offer.

Kek Lok Si, Penang, Malaysia

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket, Thailand

After we dived ourselves silly in Koh Tao, the voyage headed south to Phuket. For the majority of my experience, I felt like it was Koh San Road on steroids. I didn’t think a place could out-crazy KSR, but the trophy goes to Phuket.

I was expecting the stereotypical jutting rock structures emerging like skyscrapers from the ocean you see in almost any advertisement for Phuket; the ones shown in magazines and billboards, which lure so many tourists to this destination. And maybe I chose a different part of the island to spend my time, but I was greeted with, once again, pure chaos.

Turned out to be an awesome place to spend two days, but certainly was not what I was expecting.

We rented scooters during our stay there and took on the traffic filled hills throughout the island. Our bikes led us all the way down south to Promthep Cape for a peaceful sunset off the rocky peninsula. We had the entire area to our selves as the sun quietly dipped behind the horizon.

Phuket on a deeper level isn’t necessarily the happiest place in the world. There are warehouses of strippers dancing on bars that line Bangla Street. Local girls too young to be drinking stumble the streets in scandalous attire hitting on 50-year-old men trying to make a buck, cocktail in hand. The economy of alcohol and prostitution flood the streets. It’s a vicious circle. The heartbreaking outcome of heavy tourism is what now keeps this city alive. It’s their income and life, and for some, it’s all they know. For some, it’s all they ever will know.

Phuket, Thailand

On the other hand, from a bird’s eye view, the beaches and views are spectacular. It’s an incredible island with a lot to offer: world-class scuba diving, water sports, waterfalls and adventurous hikes. The food is mediocre and overpriced, but we always manage to find a pad thai stand that offers overstuffed portions of peanut noodles for the wonderful price of about $1.20.

Try to avoid fueling the negative aspects while in Phuket, but live it up while you’re there!

Koh Tao, Thailand

Diving, Diving and More Diving – Koh Tao

We got off the boat and threw our bags into one of the converted pick up trucks. Seats lined the truck bed with a welded roof overtop. They dropped us off outside of Phoenix Diver shop. We heard they offer solid service at a cheap price.

For around $250, new divers were able to enter an Open Water Certification course. The package included four free nights accommodation with breakfast. That was by far the cheapest course I’ve seen offered anywhere in the world.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Open Water Certification Course

Ben and I joined the Advanced Certification Course, which was around the same price. Ours included two nights accommodation and no breakfast; still quite the deal.

What made Phoenix truly special, aside from the awesome staff and cheap beer, were the free fire shows every night. Just before sunset they began prepping the beach for fire twirling, poi balls, flaming jump ropes, and the infamous fire engulfed hula-hoop, which had already done enough damage to us both.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

No homo.

Koh Tao, Thailand

The days were filled with two, sometimes three dives, at locations surrounding Koh Tao.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand The HTMS Sattakut 742, an old World War II vessel used during the occupation of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 2945, was sunk just a few years ago. Though a bit recent to have substantial marine life and corals, it was my first wreck dive. There’s something about the juxtaposition of a 158 food steel structure completely in tact sitting still in 30 meters of water. It’s so wrong, but so right. The shape remains the same, but is carpeted with marine life. Fish silently swim through the same passageways humans once inhabited.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand I digress.

Koh Tao, Thailand

To fulfill our advanced requirements, we needed five specific dives; navigation, a deep dive over 18 meters, and three elective dives. Though some involved trivial and repetitive tasks, going under is always a thrill. Staring at the surface through beaming rays of light, tottering simultaneously with the rolling swells 15 meters above you never gets old.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

I apologize in advance for this one Ben, but you should not of trusted me when I pretended we were taking a selfie. You had it coming.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Revenge filled death stare.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Laughing my ass off – sorry I’m not sorry.

Then there was this jabroni, who ran out of air and needed a buddy share. Safety first.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Just when you think you know scuba diving, and you’ve felt the comforts and fears that tag along with it, a night dive reignites the energy you felt on that very first dive.

Night dives are a combination of my two biggest fears – open water and black water at night – and have proved to be one of the most tranquil and calm adventures I’ve experienced. Of all people, I thought I’d find myself in a state of panic. I assumed relentless waves of uncontrollable anxious apprehension would swamp my mind.

Yes, it was pitch black anywhere outside the narrow cone of light emitted from my torch. Yes, it showed the smallest possible fraction of vast ocean that surrounded me. But those two thoughts never crossed my mind. Not even once. Well, at least not after I descended beneath the surface. That part of the experience still freaks me out.

Koh Tao, Thailand

The worst part.

 

In fact, it’s common for divers, including myself, to significantly reduce air consumption during a night dive. The mind is less distracted.

Every ounce of thought and energy was devoted to that triangle of light in front of me. Colors show true and vibrant since the torch accurately emits the full spectrum of white light, regardless of dive depth. Low lying creatures intimidated by threats of daytime predators now enjoy being the center of attention and own the spotlight… literally.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Dinner.

 

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

There was no time for pesky inane fears of sharks.

I was in outer space. A vast vacuum of darkness, surrounded by oceanic aliens coming out to observe me, just as I was doing to them. What we did next though, took our aquatic interstellar experience to the next level.

All at once we took our torches, turned them towards our chest, and smothered the light into our wetsuits. It was one of the darkest moment of my life, in the happiest way imaginable. Staring into nothing, we waved our hands vigorously.

LUMOS!

Bioluminescence exploded from our fingertips. The dark abyss glittered with specs of light that glowed blue and green for only a second before fading back to nothing.

It was a multicolored array of sparks shooting towards the stars above a recently stoked campfire log. It was an underwater meadow buzzing with fireflies in numbers far too many to catch. It was a galaxy.

It. Was. Awesome!

At once, we stopped waving our hands and the sight became nothingness once more. We drew our torches and continued the dive.

Koh Tao, Thailand

The remainder of our dive did not disappoint. Beneath a massive ledge we spotted a sea turtle about the size of a queen mattress, which later swam over our dive buddies like a living UFO.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Each fish latched on to it’s shell was around 2-3 feet long.

 

Finally, we made it back to the surface. After an attempted attack by a small box jellyfish, we boarded the boat for our celebratory night dive beer and headed back to the less exciting terrestrial island for some more Siam Sato and fire shows.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Random highlight of the trip was when Dan bet Ben and I we couldn’t swim to the nearest island in under and hour. We accomplished the feat in 19 minutes!

Koh Tao, Thailand

View to the island we swam to.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Full Moon Party, Koh Pha Ngan

Imagine a beach about half a mile long. Put that beach in tropical paradise with gorgeous lush green hills and cliffs on either side. The water is comfortably warm, crystal clear to the bottom. Vibrant fish swim about your feet as you wade the shallows. In the distance, tourists are paddleboarding, kayaking and doing other water sport activities.

It’s perfect.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

 

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Keep that image above in your mind.

Now, fill that beach with 30,000 people. 30,000! People, who have traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles in an alcohol thirsty, party-destined trance to experience the one and only Full Moon Party of Koh Penang.

Getting to the island from Bangkok is easy, but in no way luxurious. It required about 20.5 hours of overnight bussing and ferry rides. The bus did stop several times for food, though I really wish it didn’t.

Even at 0200, after six hours on a bus, my appetite remained as adventurous as ever. The small bus stop offered the normal pad thai and various common dishes. But, there was this pink egg off to the side that glowed like Easter morning. I figured it was better not to ask, and just go for it. Big mistake!

Centenial Egg, Thailand

On my plate came an egg that must have been laid circa 1907, buried in pile of cow dung, and left to decay somewhere amongst the relentless heat in Death Valley. What was once the “white part” of the egg has become impossibly translucent and amber. The “yolk” had become a tri-layered, custard-textured cream ball of decaying goo that transitioned from purple to brown to atomic orange.

Centenial Egg, Thailand

Not one aspect of this egg resembled an egg.

I regretfully took a bite from this egg, which only resulted in a rapid sprint to the outside curb of this restaurant in a frenzy of dry heaves and instantaneous nausea.

Who the hell invented this dish, let alone made a conscious decision to serve it to any human being on the planet? Or a better question, who in their right mind buys this toxic egg?!

Allegedly, this mutant concoction is considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures, sometimes served as an aperitif… No!

I digress.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

For one complete night every lunar cycle, and part of the next day, that picturesque beach I described above turns into one of the wildest beach parties in the world.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Small wooden stands line the beach selling mixed drinks in beach buckets, or simply a“bucket”. Waterslides pour out of buildings and onto the beach. Fire shows light up the sand in all directions.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Fire show. 30,000 drunkards. Plus fire? What could possibly go wrong? I’m not saying Ben and I didn’t take our risks jumping through flaming hulahoops and kerosene soaked jump ropes, or got burns on our legs. Ben may have even clipped his leg on the scorching hulahoop as we jumped through the thing together, resulting in a 3rd degree burn. But, the beard and Jesus flow survived the evening, which is all that really mattered.

A four tiered stage was set up over the water which somehow didn’t collapse as hundreds simultaneously jumped to the music.

The music and camaraderie continued well into the following morning. Most people were asleep by then, including myself, but it didn’t stop the determined few that survived the entire evening.

Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Koh San Road, Bangkok

HBH’s in SE Asia at Last

Three months in Greece. Three weeks with Lex. It culminated with a sobering moment of reflection as I entered the plane destined from Dubrovnik to Bangkok. The whole experienced blended into one blink of the eye. A firework. Nothing more than a bang of blinding light, shattering its surroundings with thunderous excitement. “Ooh’s” and “aah’s” filled my mind as the reminiscent trail of smoke stimulated olfactory senses, carrying on that moment for just a few seconds longer. Every step on that plane encompassed a grand finale on the Fourth of July.

Step. Bang, crack, boom. Step. Bang, crack, boom.

My mind raced in flashbacks, simultaneously predicting flash-forwards. Asia was finally happening. It was part of our original plan. After 10 incredible months, and by far the strangest and most unpredictable route I could have taken, we were finally transitioning into the pad Thai overdosed, Siam Sato saturated, chicken-heart skewered journey of Southeast Asia!

Bangkok proved to be crazier than I remembered. I went out with a few guys and girls I met staying at our hostel, waiting out the 2 days for Ben to arrive from his meditation course. I’m sure he made some progression up there as he focused 10 hours a day in raw silence to transition his mind into the life of meditation. But, what I was even more sure of, regarding our long awaited reunion through the debauchery filled country of Thailand, was that any progress made during those 10 days of peace would be obliterated and reversed past the point of no return.

Koh San Road, Bangkok

I met Ben at the airport, arrival sign in hand. Well, it was more just a picture of his face, or half his face… Ok, it was just his beard. But what else do we really need to spot a 6’ 3” Onyx?

Koh San Road, Bangkok

We had a celebratory beer with his meditation friend Mike in the airport, and boarded the 30 minute sky train toward Koh San Road.

Koh San Road (KSR), for those who aren’t familiar, is the backpacker’s hotspot of Bangkok. It is a densely populated street of tourists from around the world, with enough tchotchke stands to provide the population of Asia with shenanigans you genuinely don’t want and will never need.

I don’t recommend more than two or three nights near KSR. Unless of course you enjoy being immersed in a scene of overwhelming bombardment to buy worthless things; small wooden frogs that make a mediocre ribbit noise; ping pong show reps shoving their small advertisement papers in your face accompanied by the vulgar lip popping sounds; lady boys standing on every corner; bracelet stands lining the streets with phrases written on them I wouldn’t say in front of my mother.

But, I do recommend asking me another time what they say, as they are quite hilarious and beyond wrong on so many levels.

Also, ping pong shows are a once in a lifetime, must see – nothing further on that subject.

The smell of desperation seeps from every cluttered storefront. But I guess, after all, that is why we make the trip to KSR. To feel those immense swamping assaults, and be surrounded by total chaos. And the chicken hearts. They truly are a treat. On a shallow level, it’s all part of the fun. I will say it is one of the more fun destinations, but only in small doses.

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

The waters between Split and Hvar have to be the most densely populated abundance of sailboats on the planet. It was beautiful. I was stuck on a massive gas guzzling ferry. Torture.

Hvar, Croatia

Karl, Lex and I disembarked and headed toward the city of Hvar, Hvar.

Hvar, Croatia

Per usual, we unpacked our things and bee-lined to a restaurant known for its incredible sunset views.

Hvar, Croatia

It was near the end of the season on the island, so many of the restaurants were closing in about a week. We were at the right place at the right time, and happily fell victim to their imminent need to clean out their fridges. Aside from the best beef carpaccio we’ve ever had and perfectly cooked gnocchi, they brought out free appetizers and desert, including two types of pâté . Good start on this island.

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

 

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

The next morning we joined a group of travelers and followed a coastal path towards a stone beach about twenty minutes away. We spent the afternoon snorkeling amongst sea cucumbers, sea urchins and schools of small fish. It felt good to get a pair fins back and to do some free diving. I was even joined by a badass mermaid who did some free diving practice with me and made it to the bottom.

DCIM291GOPRO

 

Hvar, Croatia

After cooking everyday for the last three months in Greece, I had the itch to get back in the kitchen. I offered to cook a meal for the crew back at the hostel. We stopped at a grocery store on the way home, and split the cost of the strange and random assortment of ingredients I was able to find. I decided to whip up a variation of two dishes I had experimented with in Greece, and prayed they’d come out OK. The biggest expense as usual was beer, but that is neither here nor there.

Hvar, Croatia

We all sat down and enjoyed (I think) balsamic veggies, lemon dill rice and an unidentified chicken dish… followed by some beer. Once the food coma resided, we made our way to the bar. For some reason I ended up leaving dressed like Jesus… again? The night mostly consisted of Zaid dancing like a boss, and the rest of pretending like we knew how.

On our last day in Hvar, after dragging Lauren out of bed, we rented a small motorboat built for three people and filled it with nine. Having the freedom of a personal boat is a must for anyone visiting Hvar. Even if it’s undersized and overflowing with bodies, strapped with just a nine horsepower engine, it’s a blast. We got to explore new beaches, cliff jump and accidentally stumble upon the single greatest restaurant we attended during the #GerbEuroTrip.

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia It was hidden in a small cove off one of the islands. As we came around the corner, a man floating in the shallows on a small boat lunged a spear beneath the surface and brought up a fresh octopus. It was absurd timing. We knew this place was going to be good!

Hvar, Croatia

Hvar, Croatia

After starting a wood fire in the massive brick oven, they began to bring out dish after dish of freshly caught and cooked food. Octopus salad, gnocchi, tuna steak, grilled vegetables, garlic bread, and pork chops. It was endless!

Hvar, Croatia

 

Our time in Hvar sadly came to an end as we headed back to shore, stuffed Karl with our bags plus a Lauren and Emma, and boarded the ferry back to Split for one last crazy night.

Turns out I wasn’t the only Jesus on board this time!

Split, Croatia

Karl, Karlovacek and Mixed Meat Platters – Split, Croatia

First order of business for any long drive with the Gerber’s: food. We found an amazing café overlooking the mountains and valleys of central Croatia, just south of Plitvic Lakes. My eyes were immediately drawn to an item on the menu called “mixed meat platter”, which, turned out to be offered at nearly every restaurant (and yes I ordered it almost every time). A steaming pile of grilled lamb, pork chops, pork belly, burger meat and some other indistinguishable cuts were slewed out over a heaping pile of rice. The smorgasbord covered my entire oversized tray. It was shoveled into my mouth faster than it was served.

Split, Croatia

Lex and I sampled our first Croatian beer, Karlovacek, inspiring the name of our sexy rental car, Karl.

Split, Croatia

Karl, Lex and I finished off the drive to Split in dismal fashion. Our hostel was located in the center of Old Town, which was essentially a castle of narrow streets now accessible for pedestrians. A mixture of laziness and ignorance led us to a failed attempt at taking the car as close to the hostel as possible. The hostel we soon found out was located deep in the center of Old Town. Steering Karl through the tight walking streets of Split, winding up wedged between suits of armor and swords in some medieval flea market while getting yelled at in Croatian, was not received well by the locals. Eventually we found a place to make a U-turn and got the hell out of there.

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

We parked Karl and walked to our hostel, the Booze and Snooze, which held true to its name. Its location couldn’t have been better. Within walking distance to the beaches, it was situated in the main square, just outside the old clock tower and palace section of the castle. Apparently Game of Thrones was on set in the castle just ten days before. The things Lex would of done to see that in action…

I digress.

It was a true party hostel, and one of the best I’ve ever stayed in. The veranda was packed with travelers drinking beers, before heading to the hostel’s backpacker bar, Charlies.

Charlies is the ultimate dive bar for travelers. During the day, it doubles as receptions for the Booze and Snooze’s sister hostel, the Fiesta Siesta. Most genius hostel names ever? When heading to Charlies, don’t forget to bring something you don’t mind leaving behind; if you hang something on the ceiling, and I mean literally anything, you get a free shot. Shoes, sleeping bags, condoms, toy guns, bras and panties, clown masks and cigarette packs dangle above your head. The hovering random assortment of worthless alcohol traded items boasts the perfect decoration for the reckless atmosphere of Charlies. The place is good.

Split, Croatia

Morning. After transferring our bags to the Fiesta Siesta where we’d spend night two, it was time to cure the hangover. Eggs benedict drizzled with balsamic vinegar might be Croatia’s greatest invention, and it sure did the trick.

Split, Croatia

We made our way up the bell tower in the center of the palace. Rusty stairs spiraled upwards inside all the way to the top. The views were amazing, but there were way to many people piled on this decaying platform to find any comfort in my fear-of-heights ridden mind.

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

Just before we reached ground level, we passed through a small food market selling local and foreign dishes. Varieties of cheese and meat platters lined the tables. We may or may not have bought a large tube of horse salami sausage.

Split, Croatia

The remainder of the day was spent on the beach. As Lex cooled off in the water, I watched from shore sitting in the sand, wearing the only pair of shorts I own. Getting them wet, salty and sandy would only lead to excessive chaffing at the bar that night. Who forgets to wear a bathing suit to the beach?

Split, Croatia

Round two at Charlies proved just as wild as round one. Morning two was just as hungover as morning one. Eggs benedict plate two was just as revolutionarily delicious as plate one.

We stuffed our bellies, sat in the port jamming a little bit, and eventually drove Karl onto the ferry to make our way to Hvar for some more pristine waters and beaches… bathing suit included this time.

Split, Croatia