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FROM ESTONIA WITH LOVE Kariina TÅ¡ursin-Sootla and Margus Sootla


Southeast Asia


A statue of Buddha in Wat Si Chum at Sukhothai, Thailand’s first capital.

Young Buddhist monks playing around with a huge drum in Luang Prabang, Laos.


Southeast Asia

Traditional Thai boat anchored near the coast in Phuket.


Southeast Asia

When we stopped at some village in East Timor, a group of men approached us. Only one of them – a teacher – could speak English. Interestingly, regardless of the country or the continent, it was always teachers who seemed the most knowledgeable and curious of the local bunch.


Southeast Asia

Workers at the harbor of Padang. On Sumatra, one of the larger Indonesian islands, tourism isn’t yet as big a thing as on Java, let alone Bali, so a foreigner showing up still creates excitement.

On Bali’s neighboring island Lombok, the palm groves resembled cathedrals, with the branches of slender palm trees hanging down like giant chandeliers and the ground carpeted with neat grass.


Southeast Asia

Kids are very much into posing in front of a camera. These girls from East Timor first hid their faces, but soon enough they were competing to see who would be able to strike the coolest pose.


Southeast Asia

No matter which spot on the planet, kids will be kids. As long as there is a tree standing somewhere, they will find a way to climb it. The picture was taken in Dili, East Timor.

An intriguing example of traditional architecture in East Timor.

As we were circumnavigating East Timor, we discovered that a country’s main highway may well turn out to be no more than a rocky track.




Southeast Asia

Women of the Kayan tribe, who fled the military regime in Myanmar, now live in villages scattered along Thailand’s northwestern border. They are famous for their long necks.

A typical village in Laos.

Stopping in remote villages always warrants attention of the locals – as children are keen on touching all possible buttons and switches, men inquire about the bike’s capacity and top speed.




East Timor

Gettin’ interesting

The smoke that billows from the crater of Gunung Bromo or Mount Bromo illustrates the fact that Earth is not a dead piece of rock, but rather a living organism. The Indonesian archipelago, located in the area where several tectonic plates meet, is teeming with volcanoes.

The beauty of Timor-Leste had already started revealing itself even before we touched the ground. Entering its air space, the Sun had just risen, and below us the green mountains were still asleep under the cool morning mist. The small airstrip of Dili sits just by the sea and is fringed with palm trees. What a better introduction to the next leg of our journey after weeks of dry, endless flat ground of Australia! This may sound like arriving at some resort, but the truth couldn’t be more different. Timor-Leste or East Timor, the youngest country in Asia, got its independence from Indonesia in 2002, after decades of bloodshed. It is a fragile nation. In order to protect it and to help it rebuild the infrastructure, the UN is ever present. At the airport, there were numerous UN-marked aircraft; the streets of Dili were infested with UN-cars. So, if you see a foreign person on the street, most likely it is not a tourist, but some military or aid worker implementing some important cooperation or project. And there are plenty of internationals in Dili, driving the prices for food and accommodation disproportionately high. The sad thing is though that the foreign workers prefer the company of others like them, converging at expat bars and restaurants instead of enjoying sunsets by the ocean together with the locals. Because of the language barrier, it wasn’t possible for us to have long conversations with locals – most people in Timor-Leste speak Tetum as their mother tongue, while the older generation also understands Portuguese. In some respect, the situation felt familiar, because in Latin America the locals mostly only spoke Spanish, and we really had to struggle in the beginning when we arrived there with our non-existent Spanish. But Tetum was a whole new territory for us, and so we had to get by with gestures and smiles. And they smiled back! Those smiles were sincere, and most of them came from children. By the way, 35% of Timor-Leste’s population is made up of children under the age of 15. Interaction with children seems to have a universal pattern across the world. At first they seem shy and suspecting, sometimes hiding behind a tree or a big rock, until eventually they start competing for your attention, striking one pose after another for the camera. Once when we stopped by a small church in a roadside fishing village, some twenty children immediately surrounded us. So what do you do if you have a bunch of kids looking at you as if you were an alien from a crashed flying saucer but do not speak a word of their language? The solution came from the kids themselves and was so simple and almost obvious that we felt a bit stupid. They asked us in Portuguese what were our names. We could understand that as that is the first


question you learn in a language class. And we asked the same question from them. It made them a lot of fun and saved us from the uncomfortable silence. Although according to the Global Hunger Index, Timor-Leste is one of the “hungriest” countries in the world (ranking fourth after Burundi, Eritrea and Comoros), we never saw anyone begging for money or desperately trying to sell us something. Perhaps it is because the country is so young and hasn’t been spoiled by tourism and the accompanying flow of money. Regardless, it doesn’t even come to people’s minds to ask. Some old colonial-age buildings aside, the


For a northerner, palm trees may well be the epitome of a tropical paradise, but East Timor is still only making baby steps towards becoming a mass tourism destination. Secretly we hope that they don’t rush it too much.

East Timor

local architecture is simple, dominated by simple huts made of natural materials such as straw and banana leaves. A large majority of people earn their living by fishing and raising pigs, goats, bananas, or coffee. There is no industry as such, and there is not much infrastructure either. The most detailed map that we could get hold of was 1:750,000, and with it in hand, we rode out of Dili to explore the countryside. We planned to circumnavigate the country, which is three times smaller than our tiny Estonia. Soon enough we realized that there weren’t many signposts, and that there were no fuel stations except in the capital. Outside Dili, fuel is sold on the roadside in small plastic bottles. Our fuel tank was large enough and the country so small that we never needed to refuel. The local traffic was definitely Third World, with people riding on top of buses and in the back of trucks – something we hadn’t seen yet. The worst thing was the road conditions though. It all started nicely with a rather good tarmac road, albeit only a few meters wide, which skirted a turquoise sea and was lined with elegant palm groves, and had beautiful mountains on the other side. But soon after we turned slightly inland, the road became patched, then potholed, and then turned into gravel, which in turn transformed into large boulders. It didn’t look like much of a road anymore, making us doubt if the map was correct and if we were on the right track. We didn’t want to turn around though. Somehow it is psychologically easier to push on than to backtrack. No giving up! At one point the road just ended and there was a wide river in front of


East Timor

us. We used our satellite phone to call the UN number for road conditions, and although they said the road was difficult, it should have been doable. We had to find a bridge that would get us across the river. After riding around some smaller tracks we were finally on the bridge, and our journey continued on the other side, with no improvement in road conditions. It was difficult to steer the heavy bike, which was getting pounded by the uneven surface. Not a minute went by without us feeling sorry for our poor suspension. It was doing the toughest job since Bolivia, that’s for sure! But as always, difficult conditions come with a reward. We rode through pristine jungle and remote villages where there is so little traffic that people would stop what they were doing and look towards the road at the first sound of a vehicle coming. The kids would all wave at us, and so would many people who were surprised to see us there. If we stopped, men would come and look and touch our bike with amazement. Here, people seemed to be very open, and very spontaneous. The villages we passed through were quite different from what we’d seen anywhere before, with wooden houses standing on stilts just like in some fairy tale. After so much hardship of getting there, we could indeed believe that we’d reached a village of some jungle fairies. We had to push on though. We didn’t have anything to replenish our energy supplies except for a packet of biscuits and a few bottles of water, so by the end of the day we had to get to a more “civilized” place that at least had a store of


A village with no name in the eastern part of East Timor.

East Timor, Indonesia

some sort. Just before sunset, we found ourselves in Viqueque on the southern shore of Timor-Leste and felt both triumphant and blessed about finding the only guesthouse in the village. We were too exhausted to notice the cackling of chicken just outside the window and the grumble of a generator just outside another window of our room. By the way, the generator is only switched on for one hour a day, so that’s how much electricity there is, and so we tried to plug in as many battery chargers as we possibly could during that hour to get ready for the next day. From Viqueque we had no choice but to turn back north after we found out that there was a bridge missing on the road further west, preventing us from completing the intended circle of Timor-Leste. But we thoroughly enjoyed riding through the mountains and jungle of Central Timor-Leste and back to Dili. We didn’t stay for long, electing to head out towards the western part of the island that belongs to Indonesia. Perhaps it’s good we didn’t stay longer in Timor-Leste – the people and the landscapes, and the raw beauty of it all had made us fall in love with the country in just a few days. We left the country, craving for more. West Timor, separated from Timor-Leste by a straight line, is a whole lot different from East Timor. The first thing we noticed was the higher standard of living. The buildings were more solid and the road was in better condition. But it also meant more abundant and chaotic traffic, which we did not like at all. Suddenly there were people everywhere, but nobody waved at us anymore. Instead, wherever we stopped people would come and touch our bike, sometimes even lean on or – even worse – sit on it as if it were theirs. We did not like that too much, but even our disapproving looks did little to change their behavior. And the landscape had become dry as if we were in Australia again with not a sign of the lush tropical vegetation we had encountered in East Timor. After a night in Kupang, the largest town in West Timor, we boarded a ferry to the island of Flores. Because Indonesia is solely comprised of islands (and has more than 17,000 of them), getting across it to Malaysia required us to use ferries seven times. The first leg, from Timor to Flores, was 12 hours long and was a ferry ride to remember. By the way, the ferries in Indonesia are notorious for sinking, especially when the seas are rough. Not only is their seaworthiness doubtful, but they are also constantly overloaded. We bought tickets to the economy class, which as we learned later on the ferry, was comprised of small, uncomfortable plastic seats. The business class did not look too luxurious either, with stained mattresses lying side-by-side on the



Indonesia is notorious for frequent boat accidents. But then again, considering that the country is made up of thousands of islands and that boat traffic is intense, perhaps the capsized boats can be considered a way of life. floor. We first thought of staying on the car deck with the motorcycle until the ferry left port. Once again, curious onlookers fondled the bike, and we would not consider leaving it alone to search elsewhere for floor space for our mattresses. But that is not how it went. Soon enough we realized that all the people walking around the car deck were actually going to stay there for the ride, so we lay down by the bike, one on one side and one on the other side. We won’t claim that it was enormously cozy or comfortable, but it did for the night. And we knew the bike was safe with us. In addition to all scooters, motorbikes, cars, and trucks, there were a whole lot of people down there on the car deck, and some birds and animals, too. At one point, a piglet got loose, which caused the Muslim women to panic. In Islam, pigs are considered dirty animals, but most of the people seemed to be amused by chasing and trying to catch the poor creature. Considering all the action as well as the heat and noise emanating from the engine room just underneath the car deck, it wasn’t too easy to get some sleep, but after some twelve hours the sharp volcanic cones of Flores Island appeared on the horizon, and we prepared ourselves for the next leg of our trip.


Breakdowns Repairing the bike while on the road can be a major headache, especially if it breaks down somewhere in the Third World where both proper tools and spares are hard to find. There, you have to improvise. But ironic as it may be, the breakdowns serve as a key to finding out more about yourself and others around you. In fact, there is no better way to get to know locals than being stuck with them for a while. Interruptions are the journey, indeed!




1000 people/km² After Flores came Sumbawa, then Lombok, Bali, and then Java, the fifth largest island in Indonesia. Also home to Jakarta, the capital, Java is home to more than half of Indonesia’s population and is the most densely populated area in the whole world, with around one thousand people per square kilometer. It is, therefore, quite justifiably considered the heart of the nation. We were skeptical about Jakarta. The eastern part of Java had seduced us with sparkling rice terraces and cozy highland villages. Then a few hundred kilometers before Jakarta we found ourselves enduring bad traffic, inhaling an intoxicating mixture of exhaust fumes, and trying to survive the rule of might – the bigger vehicle, the bigger right. And the closer we got to Jakarta, the worse it all got. The traffic was so intense and needed so much attention that by the end of the day when we were checking into some hotel or guesthouse, it took physical effort to fill in another form. Rewinding the day’s events in order to recall the name of the place that we’d come from in the morning really was work. Even a few hours in that traffic left you feeling like a lemon squeezed empty. And I wasn’t even at the handlebars! If someone had asked us before, we would have rated Syria as the country with the worst traffic – horse carts, agricultural machinery, trucks with flashing neon lights (but no headlights!) had made it far worse than the feared, hotheaded Latin America. But Indonesia made us readapt to new traffic rules, and I don’t mean rules such as riding on the left-hand side of the road. We’d gotten used to that already in Australia. We are not sure what the Indonesian Traffic Code says, and I strongly doubt that many drivers have actually been to a driving school, but in reality, overtaking is allowed – or more correctly put, “expected” – even if there is someone already overtaking you, in front of you, or if there is someone coming in your direction. Normally it all works out fine. After all, we didn’t see any accidents except for a couple of trucks driven off the road. But one has to beware of the buses. If you see a bus coming towards you, do not expect it to change lanes. It will flash lights or beep the horn, and you will have no other choice but to get the hell off the road and out of its way! Someone once said that there is only one rule in Asian traffic – to give throttle! If you start hesitating you will simply be run over. It isn’t that the traffic is chaotic; it’s just that the rules are different from ours. But coming back to Jakarta, it represented an interesting mix of modern and traditional, with mosques standing between skyscrapers, and calls to



From afar, Jakarta with its skyscrapers looks like a modern metropolis. But take a closer look, and it is just like the rest of Indonesia – jerrybuilt and somewhat dirty. prayer sounding five times a day. In Indonesia, Islam doesn’t seem as strict as in Iran. Yet there are prayer rooms everywhere, starting with fuel stations and shopping malls, and ending with hotels and all sorts of other places. More often than praying, we saw people sending messages with their phones or playing with kids in the prayer rooms. Underneath the high-rise buildings and between the mosques, the actual everyday life goes on, with sewage running past the simple homes, laundry hung out to dry from windows, and stray cats having a nap on the pavement. But perhaps it was this kaleidoscopic mess that appealed to us about Indonesia, with its variety of lifestyles and food. Oh yes, food! One thing that is different in Indonesia from other countries is what they call masakan Padang or Padang food. Popular all over Indonesia, the type and style of food comes from the island of Sumatra, more specifically the area around the city of Padang, home to Minangkabau people. Padang-style eateries are differentiated by the different dishes displayed in each restaurant’s window. If you don’t specify your wishes, all of the dishes are brought to your table. When you have finished eating, you are only charged for what you actually consumed. In some respect it is similar to a buffet where you



In the city of 11 million inhabitants, there is not enough space to draw a clothesline.

can mix and match everything. What is perhaps worth noting is that the dishes stay on display (often in full sunlight) for the whole day, but somehow we never noticed anything spoiled. Maybe it is because those foods – fried fish, fried chicken, aromatic sauces, crispy pastries – are quite spicy. Yet I’d say that Indonesian cuisine became one of my favorites, especially the rendang – beef braised in spices and coconut milk. Simply mouthwatering! Other Southeast Asian countries didn’t offer us as many surprises as Indonesia did, although we’d also give Malaysia high points for culinary delights. Because Malaysia is strategically located on major sea trade routes, it’s a cultural melting pot when it comes to food. One can find some excellent examples of both Chinese and Indian food here. If you ever happen to pass through Penang, be sure to try rice flour candies and apom telur, fried-egg-pancakes served with curry sauce – these are a perfect street food. Or try the wonderful local dishes such as the Malay noodle soup laksa, which has several variations. There are foods that are true to their cultural origins, and then there are foods that are born out of cultural merger and thus specific to Malaysia. To put it short, there is plenty to discover for a passionate foodie. We found Thai cuisine rather special too, best described as a mix of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy flavors in one dish, holding the tough balance between enjoyable and intolerable. By the way, we heard that for Thai people it looks pretty weird to see people putting food in their mouths with a fork. They use spoons for that purpose. Therefore, food is most often served with a spoon and a knife. In Indonesia, on the contrary, food is very often eaten with hands, just like in many other Third World countries. In the beginning it was a little weird, but soon enough I got so used to the practice and even started enjoying it. I kind


of promised myself that upon our return home I’d start using my fingers for tucking the food into my mouth instead of forks and spoons. Obviously, we’d been away from home long enough to forget that in Estonia we don’t eat much rice, and eating soup or porridge with fingers is slightly more complicated. Speaking of rice, we were surprised at how much rice we could actually tolerate. It was no problem for us to eat a rice dish as much as three times a day in Southeast Asian countries. Our diets were filled with Indonesian nasi goreng, Thai pad thai, or one of the best street foods – sticky rice with grilled chicken and spicy papaya salad – that we discovered in Bangkok. Too bad that Thailand itself, with its golden sand beaches, didn’t excite us too much, and neither did the mandatory visit to the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Truth is, unforgettable experiences lie where you least expect them.


The houses of the Minangkabau people have curved roof structures meant to mimic the horns of buffalo.


Rollin’ on The border crossing from Cambodia to Laos was easy, except for the nasty migration officers on both sides. They’ve been spoiled by naïve tourists willing to give money away to corrupt officers even when it is evident that the dollars are going straight into the officers’ pockets. The Cambodians were actually easy to deal with. They asked for one dollar, and we asked for a receipt. They knew damn well that we knew that they shouldn’t be asking for “stamping fees,” so our passports were stamped with no dollars involved. It was a tad more difficult on the Laos side, where the rather young officer, made a bit nervous by our request for a receipt with his name, called his boss to clarify the subject to us. All he could say to justify the one dollar stamping fee was that “everybody pays.” Well, we were not so eager to support corruption, so we insisted on a receipt, while some backpacker standing in the queue just behind us tried convincing us that our attempts of avoiding the payment would fail because “this is the way things work there” and that after all, one dollar wasn’t much. Well, it was for us, and it definitely was for the people living in this poor country, especially if you count how many tourists pass through that border post each day. We insisted that we wouldn’t pay if there wasn’t a receipt, and we got our passports stamped without flashing any money. As we traveled north we were stunned by the good quality of the road. We had only heard about how Laos’s roads were bad and muddy. It was all smooth tarmac, just as if we had arrived in some developed country. We plunged deeper into the countryside, which looked pretty rustic and undeveloped with thatched huts, and went looking for some smaller roads. With the help of our GPS, somehow we ended up on a road that was just in the process of being constructed. It was indeed rough, pretty rocky, and included some river crossings. The conditions got tougher the farther we went, but we kept on pushing forward. Well, that was until we noticed dark liquid coming out of the final drive during a break from riding. It was leaking badly, and we could see small pieces of metal in the oil. Great! According to our map, the nearest village was many kilometers away, so for a while we just stood there and watched it drain. And while we did, some bugs were making strange, almost hypnotic noises in the trees. It was as if we were in a movie and something odd was going to happen. It was not a first-time sight for us. The first time the shaft drive leaked we were on Ruta 40 in Argentina, and we had managed to replace both the bearing and the seal in the small village of Perito Moreno. Both then and now we had the spare



parts with us, so no problem, but undertaking the repairs while still on the side of the road would have been perhaps too much adventure. Continuing to ride to the next village would not have been an option. Although that is what we did last time, but back then it had been dripping slowly. Because the shaft drive this time had leaked basically empty – the seal was totally ripped – and riding like that would have done a lot of damage, we had to wait for someone to come and pick us up. There was virtually no traffic, and after half an hour we decided to switch to Plan B – to ride, despite all, to the nearest settlement. After three kilometers of slow and careful riding we arrived at a place with a couple of simple huts. It was no village, but there were people. We tried explaining to them what had happened and that we needed a pick-up truck or something, but they spoke no English, as usual, so we decided to simply wait by one of the huts. The family was friendly though, and their children were very curious. While waiting Margus decided to remove the rear wheel and determine the gravity of the problem. It appeared that the bearing had been virtually destroyed – there were big pieces of metal. By seeing it even the locals could understand that the bike was not going anywhere without a pickup truck. Hours passed, and it was going to get dark soon. Just then, a pickup showed up going our direction. In return for some cash, the driver eagerly took the bike and us to the nearest village with a mechanic shop. The setting Sun saw us bouncing in the back of the truck down the same road we had traveled. The driver stopped a couple of times along the way to smoke a cigarette with some local chaps, making us feel a little anxious. After all, we were in a vulnerable situation having trusted our and our bike’s safety to the hands of a total stranger, and we couldn’t understand a word of the local language. What if they were plotting some plan to relieve the “white people” of their possessions? The thought did cross our minds as it was getting darker and darker. By the time we arrived in the village it was pitch dark. As we were unloaded at some workshop, a crowd gathered. We could not see if there were friendly faces or not – it was so dark. Obviously it was too late to start working on the bike, so we asked if there was a hotel nearby. We were told that there was, but we would have had to leave the bike in the workshop with the people we had not even seen. We did not feel too secure about it. Then the owner, a rather young Mr. Ki explained, using gestures (he didn’t speak a word of English) that we could spend the night at the workshop. What a relief! After a long day we had ended up in a strange place, but Ki and his humble wife were kind enough to take us in. We were deeply grateful. We started



to put our mats down by the bike, but he gestured to us that we would not need to sleep on the greasy floor. Instead, we could sleep on the carpeted patio. We were absolutely stunned by the warm welcome from a stranger! The next thing we knew, Mr. Ki had prepared the bathroom for us to take a shower. Buckets of water had been carried in the pitch dark to what looked like a semi-outdoor bathroom around the corner from the house. After we’d scooped ourselves clean, trying not to waste too much precious water, we were offered some beer and a dinner on the floor of the patio. The simple fare – rice, fish broth,

Changing the rear wheel bearing ain’t rocket science after all – if you are creative and have a few helping hands.



and barbequed chicken – was delicious, and we could not thank our hosts enough for their over-the-top hospitality towards us, their totally unexpected guests. As we had finished eating, a mattress was laid on the patio floor, with a mosquito net and a fan. We fell asleep in the blink of an eye, only to wake up at around four in the morning when roosters started making noise. We got up at around five when the ladies started boiling rice and chopping herbs for the new day. The Sun hadn’t even risen yet. Village life starts early! Once Margus got hold of a good toolset, repairs went easily and swiftly. He was done in only an hour or two. We used our camping cooker’s burner to heat up the bevel box to open it, then additional heating for removing the bearing. That was the biggest task. Margus first tried kicking it out, but he only got it to move slightly. After that, Mr. Ki came up with an idea of using his hydraulic lifter to remove the bearing. Then we heated up the casing again, mounted it back on, and we were good to go. Quite possibly it would also have been doable beside the road using our own tools, but then we would have missed this priceless experience of getting to know local customs and hospitality. Before we left, Mr. Ki and his wife gave us their wedding photo as a present. We were really touched.

In many Asian countries, pale skin is considered a sign of aristocracy (because wealthier people don’t work in the field, and hence their skin doesn’t get so much sunlight), and therefore – beautiful, so when doing make-up, women try to make their skin look as pale as possible.


Southern Asia

In Nepal and North India, Tibetan prayer wheels are a common sight. Spinning the prayer wheels is said to spread the mantras inscribed on them throughout the Universe.

Persian sacred architecture features mosaics that are rich in detail, as well as calligraphic inscriptions.


Southern Asia

Sand dunes near the village of Toudeshk in Iran. Sculpted and shifted by wind, they seem like mysterious creatures – calm and silent. . . .

Hookah bar in Esfahan, Iran – definitely a no-go for women.


The rugged track to Tso Moriri runs across a rocky high plateau where the air is thin but landscapes are unworldly.


Snowy pass in Ladakh region in North India. Located in the Himalayas, Ladakh can only be accessed by road a few months a year when the summer Sun melts the snow layer thin enough to cut a road through it.

One of the rare “family photos” was taken at Khardung La, the mountain pass that for a long time was considered the highest motorable pass in the world – it was claimed to be at 5,602 meters above sea level, but the actual height is 5,359 meters. High places are perfect for hanging Tibetan prayer flags because the wind can easily carry off the mantras written on them.


Southern Asia

After a strenuous trek in Kashmir to see K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, in the northeastern region on Pakistan, our guide Sher Ali invited us to his hut to have a meal.

Pakistani men wearing pakol hats that resemble pancakes, and thus they are also called “pancake hats.”

Camping in the moonlight in Zanskar Valley in the Himalayas. Romantic – that’s for sure, but cold as always in the mountains.


Southern Asia


From Estonia With Love - Southeast Asia  

Adventures of Estonian couple who circumnavigated the world on BMW motorcycle over 1126 days through 70 countries. Sample chapter - Southeas...

From Estonia With Love - Southeast Asia  

Adventures of Estonian couple who circumnavigated the world on BMW motorcycle over 1126 days through 70 countries. Sample chapter - Southeas...