Backpackology Mon, 20 Mar 2017 01:59:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Long Road To Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia Sun, 25 Oct 2015 16:03:52 +0000

On the third day, I made a sea-change decision: I thought, if I ever get out of this miserable desert, I’m going to write my first postcard ever. “Sunny Greetings from the Gobi!” it will say, happily scrawled over a stark, grey purgatory of pebbly sand and death. On the back I’d write:


Dear Mom and Dad,

Greetings from the Gobi!

I hope everything’s going well.

I’ve been trapped in the cabin of a truck for the last three days with two mangled sheep carcasses and a fat, Mongolian trucker named Bold. Every morning, I awaken to find Bold smiling over me with a foldable hunting knife in one hand and breakfast in the other—a metal bucket filled with several-days-old, boiled, unrefrigerated sheep parts. Every meal it’s the same metal bucket. I hate the metal bucket.

It’s a complicated story how I ended up here, but basically: never go hitchhiking in Mongolia when you’re plastered drunk—or ever, for that matter.

If Bold spoke English, I would ask him, “Why (and how) have we been driving through the desert for three days?”

I would ask him, “Where are we?”

I would ask him, “Where are you driving us to, you big, strange Mongolian man?”

But I already know the answers.

We’ve been driving for three days because I am in Hell.

We are nowhere.

I don’t know where we’re going, but I do know that it doesn’t matter; I’ll never make it to Ulaanbaatar; I’ll never catch my ride to Bayan-Olgii; I’ll never get to visit the Kazakh nomads for their Eagle Hunting Festival. I am doomed to forever rove this harsh, featureless expanse of sand in the smelly cabin of a truck.

Bold doesn’t have a radio, so sometimes he sings to me. I hate Bold’s singing too.

Mongolia is real nice.

Love, Steven


The border town of Zamyn-Ude is a hyperbolic shithole of a village, straddled along the Chinese border like a nightmarish welcome mat to Mongolia. Other than its signature tourist attractions, such as “Garbage-Filled Concrete Fountain,” and the solitary bar, creatively named “Bar,” the village is nothing but three gloomy, dilapidated streets of hideous, Soviet-era buildings.  Beyond that, the three streets abruptly vanish into sand, and a lone dirt track trudges north into Gobi wasteland. It is the last place on earth you want to hear the words, “The next available train ticket isn’t for three days.”

But such is my luck.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway was booked solid and I was now stranded in a place so depressing that even Mickey Mouse would have been clamoring for a Xanax.

Under normal circumstances, such a setback wouldn’t faze me. But this was not normal circumstance. I was on a quest, racing a tight clock: I needed to reach Bayan-Olgii on the fringes of Siberia before the first weekend of October. That is when the Kazakh nomads host their incredible Burkit Eagle Hunting Festival—my Mongolian side trip’s raison d’etre—a showcase of traditional culture, equestrian games, eagle hunting, and something resembling a fur-heavy, nomad fashion show. For the grand finale, the top three eagles are unleashed against a wolf.

In case you miss what I just wrote, again that’s THREE EAGLES FIGHTING A WOLF.

I needed to reach Bayan-Olgii at all costs necessary.

For that to happen, I would need to catch a ride with one of the old, Russian cargo buses that ply the 60-hour route west from Ulaanbaatar, and I needed to do it before October 1st—a challenge when you’re marooned in Zamyn-Ude with three days remaining.

Sitting by the garbage-filled, concrete fountain, it seemed like I had no options left.

There were no public buses, jeeps, or vans traversing the Gobi. I didn’t have time to wait for the next train, nor the money to afford staying in Zamyn-Ude’s hotel. I had a tent, but was afraid of camping in the desert after an American traveler warned me about olgoi-khorkoi, the Gobi Death Worm—a big, territorial invertebrate that’s faster than a snake and capable of emitting a highly venomous, acidic spray, as well as shooting a deadly electrical discharge from its rear-end. (Though, to be honest, I’d never heard of such a thing and the guy who warned me had a few too many crystal necklaces and lip-rings to warrant credibility. Furthermore, he repeatedly employed the term “positive vibrations,” forfeiting whatever authority he had left.)

But still, I wasn’t about to risk it.

Without any further options, I hatched my horrible plan:

I was going to try to hitchhike across the Gobi.

“Ha Ha Ha, this is very stupid, impossible idea,” laughed Aagi, pouring another round of Genghis Khan vodka. “Ha Ha Ha.”

“Ha Ha Ha,” agreed the other Mongolians, and Aagi doled us the shots.

I had wandered into “Bar” to formulate a plan—due to my lack of Mongolian language skills, I figured I could hand write a plea-letter explaining my situation then get someone to translate it for me, so that I could hand it to anyone who pulls over.

After scrawling down a couple paragraphs, I approached a table of young Mongolians who were ripping shots with a Russian expat named Aagi. Immediately an extra chair appeared, and while the oldest of them, Dorj, scribbled away in my notebook, the rest of them plied me with shot after shot of vodka.

“There is no one driving to Ulaanbaatar from here,” said Dorj, handing me back my notebook with his translation. “It’s eleven hours without roads. I think you’ll be waiting a very, very long time.”

“You will need at least two more shots,” smiled Aagi.

I warily slid him my glass; I could tell it was going to be a long day.

The desert sun bore down on me as I stumbled away from civilization on the dirt track, giggling drunkenly to myself. As soon as I felt sufficiently in the middle of nowhere, I dropped my pack, checked for any signs of Gobi Death Worms, and sat down to wait for my ride to Ulaanbaatar.

And I sat.

And I sat.

And I sat.

Occasionally the rumble of a truck would break the silence, and I’d jump to my feet as they barreled towards me through the emptiness. I’d then wave and smile as they roared past, kicking up clouds of dust in my face.

After 1PM, I managed to get a few jeeps to pull over, and quickly realized that there was something terribly wrong with Dorj’s translation. Two separate drivers frowned upon reading the letter, before pulling out their wallets and thrusting money in my face.

“No! No! Ulaanbaatar!” I cried.

To which they shook their heads, “Oh, no, no,” and drove off.

Finally, around sun down, I heard the purr of a motor and looked up to find a small, white sedan blazing towards me, off road, out of the desert. Approaching the dirt track about fifty yards away, it suddenly slammed to a halt. The car then shifted into reverse, rolled backwards about ten feet, and then stopped again. The engine went dead.

Through the open passenger window, two Mongolian men inquisitively stared at me.

I stared back, equally curious.

After a very long moment, the chubby man in the driver seat silently waved me over.

“Ulaanbaatar?” I asked, handing them my notebook.

“SSSttteeeevve!” the chubby man smiled, scanning the letter. He then pointed to himself, “Mongko!” then to his friend, “Walter!” before gesturing me to get in.

Bayarlaa,” I thanked him, opening the back door to a waft of vodka fumes.

Before I could settle in, a blue, plastic cup appeared in my face. Walter was holding a freshly opened vodka bottle with a mischievous grin, signaling for me to drink it.

I accommodated his demands.

Next Mongko took a shot. Then Walter. Then quickly it was my turn again.

It’s interesting to note how much easier it is to communicate with hand gestures after a few ounces of liquor; where the spoken word fails, alcohol somehow magically transcends the language barrier:

Through gestures, they explained to me that Walter was visiting Mongko, but lived in Sukhbaatar (I think). Walter was a truck driver (I think). Mongko hated children (I think).

Another car arrived, parking next to ours. A Mongolian couple piled out—with another bottle of vodka—and they opened my door and climbed in with me (it turned out they were friends of Walter) (I think).

Mongko displayed me to the couple. “Steve!” he boomed and handed them my letter.

“Steve!” they grinned.

More vodka. So much vodka.

Suddenly the Gobi was a warm and magical place, a place where everyone smiles and liquor falls like rain.

Then a truck pulled up next to us and the Mongolians started to hug. Walter gestured for me to get out. This was our ride.

Hopping onto the truck, Walter and I waved to our friends as we rumbled forward, striking north into the Gobi, leaving the town of Zamyn-Ude far, far behind.

I was shocked to learn that I wasn’t the only hitchhiker brazen enough to tackle the Gobi. Wedged into the truck’s three seats with Walter, the driver, and I were two young Mongolian hitchhikers, a boy and girl about my age. The boy chuckled something in Mongolian as they read from my notebook. Then abruptly he frowned and reached for his bag.

“No money!” I stammered.

Out of his bag came a large, silver, traditional bowl, adorned with dazzling carvings and semi-precious stones. He placed it in my hands.

Before I could protest, the boy reached back into his bag and out came a bottle of vodka. I cringed as he poured, nearly filling the bowl.

“Drink,” he said.

“You speak English?!”

Half way down the bowl, I nearly vomited and stopped to catch my breath. The bowl then went to Mongko, then (to my horror) the driver, who knocked it down with one hand still on the wheel. I wondered if he’d been drinking beforehand, but realized that it didn’t matter. In the empty expanse, there simply wasn’t anything to crash into.

The cabin started to spin, but I was euphoric nonetheless. I was triumphant, heading north, defeating the desert against the odds.

“How long till Ulaanbaatar?” I grinned, gesturing to my watch.

Ulaanbaatar?” The girl said.

“Ulaanbaatar,” I stammered. I looked to Walter, but he was passed out.

“Ulaanbaatar, nooo. We go to Baruun-Urt,” said the boy.

“WHAT,” I shouted. We were going east—about thirteen hours in the wrong direction.

“Baruun-Urt, Baruun-Urt,” chimed the driver.

The girl frowned. “No one drives to Ulaanbaatar across Gobi. Only train.”

We were already in the middle of the Gobi; there was no going back. I didn’t see the use in getting worked up, as there was nothing to be done.

Shortly thereafter, I passed out.

“Steve! The driver wants you,” said the Mongolian boy, jolting me awake.

We had parked near an ovoo (a shamanist sacred rock pile), next to a large cargo truck. Our driver was standing outside, speaking with the other truck’s driver, and frantically waving me over.

“Is he going to Ulaanbaatar?!” I cried.

The Mongolian couple shrugged.

I climbed over Walter and hopped out of the truck.

“Ulaanbaatar?” I shouted as I stumbled towards them.

The two men blabbered off in Mongolian, gesturing me into the cargo truck.

I took this as a yes…

Bold was a smiley, sausage-fingered man with a booming belly laugh, the singing voice of a toad, and a tireless affinity for boiled-sheep-parts-in-a-bucket.

“Sain bain uu!I greeted as I settled into the cab.

Sain bain uu!” screamed Bold, giving a thumbs up to my language skills. He then mumbled something else, which I perceived as him asking if I could speak Mongolian.

“Bayarlaa,” I said, reciting the second of my three Mongolian phrases. Thank you.

“Ahhhh!” Bold shrieked, clearly impressed.

I laughed, flattered, still roaring drunk, before repeating a third phrase I’d picked up at the border. “Which way is Mongolia?”

Bold stared for a minute before nodding his head confusedly and starting the truck.

Shortly thereafter, I passed out again—comfortable under the assumption that I would shortly be in Ulaanbaatar.

I was in for a sore awakening.


After days of driving through the vast, tedious nothingness, I started to understand why explorers dreaded the Gobi, and why Mongolians drink so much vodka:

There’s something deeply affecting about the crushing emptiness of the steppes. There’s something narcotic about its solitude, when the only thing you have is a musical trucker named Bold, and beyond that—nothing.

In the footprint of the largest empire the world has ever known, all that remains is sand and wind and dust. Only the passing blur of a camel or an isolated yurt suggests that time is still moving. It makes you feel small or ephemeral. You start to long for human contact. Also, vodka. Vodka seems to mute the maddening silence of the steppes.

I only maintained my sanity because of the makeshift bed assembled in the back of the cab. There I could stretch out comfortably and lose myself in thought. However, this bit of comfort was torn from me on the second afternoon, when we pulled over to that fateful, lonely yurt. I watched curiously as Bold disappeared inside, reemerging a minute later with two tanks of milk—and two deteriorating sheep carcasses.

Khonyny!” smiled Bold, and I tried not to scream as he tossed the corpses onto the bed space.

I sat in my seat for the remainder of our journey, hoping each time that over the next hill I would see something; something that never came.

I am in Hell.

I am nowhere.

I don’t know where we’re going, but I know that it doesn’t matter; I’ll never make it to Ulaanbaatar. I am doomed to forever rove this harsh, featureless expanse of sand in the smelly cabin of a truck.

At four in the morning, I awoke to Bold loudly singing at me.

“Ulaanbaatar!” he hailed.

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and peered out the window. To my shock, it was true. Or, sort of. Bold had brought us to a freight lot in the industrial, grey hinterlands of Ulaanbaatar, several miles from the city’s downtown.

He gestured to the door. This is where I got out.

“Bayarlaa!” I thanked him. I pulled out some money for the petrol and boiled lamb, but Bold violently waved in refusal. Smiling, we shook hands and Bold drove off, leaving me alone in the dark, post-apocalyptic ghetto of concrete high-rises and smokestacks. At the very least, he had been considerate enough to drop me off at a bus station—neglecting the fact that buses don’t run at four in the morning.

If I wanted to get downtown, I would need to hitchhike.

I hesitantly walked to the curb, raised up my thumb—and thought better of it.

I would rather walk.

I would rather eat a big, metal bucket of day-old, boiled, unrefrigerated sheep parts.

In the flickering streetlight, I could just make out my map, and so I threw on my bag, tightened the straps, and determinedly stalked off into the darkness. I was on a mission.

It was the morning of October 1st. I had an old, Russian cargo bus to catch.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more travel stories, check out Backpackology’s shiny, new “Travel Stories Index“–the fruit of several hours of determined procrastinating.

For another epic road trip, check out the Photo Travelogue to one of the world’s best kept travel secrets: The Karakoram Highway.

For reflections on the beauty of stressful, nerve-wracking travel, read “The Backpacker’s Manifesto

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Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale Mon, 01 Jun 2015 19:10:22 +0000

A man with a machine gun has been following me for the last five days. His name is Zia, and he is very, very shy, especially for a man with a machine gun.

He first started shadowing me in the town of Chitral, near the end of my journey into Pakistan’s lawless Northwest Frontier—just a stone’s throw from Afghanistan. I’d come here in defiance of multiple travel warnings, determined to visit the fair-skinned, green-eyed Kalash Tribe—the legendary descendants of Alexander the Great’s invading army; lineage of the sick and wounded stragglers who were left behind for dead. The survivors created a unique animist civilization that miraculously lives on today, virtually untouched by time in an isolated valley of the Hindu Kush. While two of the tribal valleys are safe to visit, they’re precariously tucked in the Taliban heartlands, with volatile Swat and Dir to the east, and the insurgent border of Afghanistan to the west.

To make the situation even more perilous, I had come to Kalash to attend the Joshi Festival—a festival that would involve (in the Mediterranean fashion of their forefathers) drinking wine, dancing, and women showing their faces and forearms. To the furious Taliban, they might as well be Satan-worshipping prostitutes eating pages out of the Quran.

The Taliban demanded the infidels to desist and convert to Islam, but when the Kalash shrugged Muhammad off for another glass of Cabernet, the terrorists threatened to attack the festival (fundamentalist Grinches that they are).

Since the threat, the Taliban had kidnapped a Greek national in Bumboret village, and the divisional police weren’t taking any more chances with foreigners.

And thus, I give you Zia, my obligatory escort, grinning and bashful with his AK-47.

While Barbara, Eric, and Racquel (my three French and Spanish travel companions) resented their constant, armed supervision, it was pure, whimsical novelty to me.

“Zia! I’m going into this Internet Café to futz on Facebook for two hours. You stand guard for bad guys.”

“Okay, yes,” he blushed.

The road to Kalash was impossibly arduous; taking four days by bus and jeep over the Shandur Mountain Pass, which bridges the Karakoram with the Hindu Kush. By the grace of Tramadol tablets, we rumbled through foggy, high-altitude meadows dotted with yaks, past bullet-ridden walls of rustic villages, past bearded Pashtuns and women in burkas, into canyons shadowed by jagged, icy peaks wreathed in mist.

We stopped for a night in a small village called Mastuj, just south of the pass. In the candle-lit Police Station, we were forced to register in a tattered Transit Log—the back cover of which consisted of taped together Pokemon cards (I’m not kidding). According to the Log’s record, Mastuj hadn’t seen a single foreigner in over seven months—and accordingly, travel infrastructure was none existent. Bottled water was an alien concept to the village’s lonesome General Store, and I can now testify that brushing your teeth with Mountain Dew is a disgusting, self-defeating, and foamy process.

“Do you want protection?” asked the Deputy as we made our way out of the police station.

“No thank you,” Eric and I smiled. “We’re just staying the night.”

“Would you like gun?” he kindly offered.

The mountains of Afghanistan loomed forebodingly overhead as we made our final descent into Kalash. No one spoke; after constant military checkpoints, the exhilarating sense of peril had an almost narcotic effect. This was real adventure, I thought. Gulliver was a pansy.

By the time we saw our first Kalash woman, walking along the dirt road, swaddled in a technicolored, tribal dress, I counted our escort as no less than twelve armed guards: four in a truck ahead us, four following behind, and four crammed with us in our open-topped jeep.

The village of Bumboret was a rustic wood-and-stone affair, clinging precariously to the steep mountain face. Weathered, old women with more fingers than teeth swished about in vibrant, traditional costumes festooned with shells and tiny beads, and hemmed with tinkling, silver bells. Some were lugging wicker baskets of kindling on their backs, past windowless, timber huts with holes in the roofs, from which billowed fluffy columns of smoke.

It would have been a beautifully bucolic and nostalgic scene, if not for the several hundred Army and police officers milling around with assault rifles (and a few lucky rocket launchers). There were guns everywhere—filing through the narrow lanes, poking out of shrubbery, idling on the smoky rooftops behind sandbagged sniper posts.

When our motorcade roared into town, none of the villagers seemed to notice.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” smiled Fahad, taking another sip of tea and gesturing to my escort.

“It’s fantastic,” I exclaimed, and Raquel rolled her eyes.

“You know, I’ve traveled all over the world as a photographer,” he said, “And my favorite trips are always, always, always the ‘dangerous’ ones.”

We were wiling away the afternoon over chai, with a slick, Dubai-based photographer we’d met, who had been sent to Kalash by an NGO. We listened like wide-eyed children as he described breathless adventures in war-torn Lebanon, of four-o’-clock curfews, and gun-fights with Somali warlords.

“That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, suddenly disappointed at my own exploits of waiting in line at the Taj.

“If the Taliban come,” he sighed, “Which I think they will… I bet it will be on the second day of the festival. That’s the main day, when all the villagers dance.”

Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and I fell silent for a moment, gazing off towards Afghanistan, as this reality sank in.

Finally, Fahad forced a smile. “But Steve doesn’t need to worry about that,” he chuckled. “You’ve already got the salwar, beard, and pakol. They’ll think you’re Afghani if you just keep your mouth shut and carry around a handful of walnuts!” he laughed.

Later that night, I procured a package of walnuts. It proved unnecessary, though.

That first night in Kalash, the border of Afghanistan was quiet and peaceful, glowing faintly under a million stars.

The festival began the next morning, with celebrations marked by people standing around, drinking milk, and quietly snacking on dried Mulberries and walnuts. Apparently it was a religious ritual, intended to purify the harvest. Either way, Allah must have been pretty sore about it, because the military presence had doubled.

“You’re very brave to come here,” nodded Hassan, after five hours of rampant dairy consumption. “You must think Kalash culture is extremely interesting.”

“Yes, it’s very interesting,” I assured, training my camera at a woman sitting on a bench, placidly sipping milk.

I noticed a sniper on a nearby rooftop start to doze off.

Hassan and his Pashtun cousins were visiting from Swat, and kindly invited us to join them for dinner and ~*~*~alcoholic drinks*~*~*~ at their guesthouse.

Around sunset, I was sitting on their porch with Hassan’s thirty-year old cousin, another Fahad, a dentist. He was explaining to me why Pakistani women stay at home, and why I can meet his wife, but I’m not allowed to meet Hassan’s or Ahmed’s or Irfan’s wives unless they first invite me, when I noticed him staring off at something behind me.

He was staring at the border.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I keep expecting to look up and see four-hundred Taliban marching down the mountain from Afghanistan,” he frowned.

“Oooh, that will never happen!” I uncomfortably laughed.

He shook his head. “Yes it will. You only say that because you haven’t lived it,” he muttered. “I’m from Swat. When the Taliban came in 2008, I had to leave my home. It was sudden. I only had a minute to look around my room and decide what to take. My parents were screaming…”

“That’s horrible…” I offered, fumbling for something to say.

“I had to leave my PS2, because there wasn’t enough time to unplug it.” He fell silent for a long moment, watching the sun sink behind the mountains.

I struggled to imagine being in that situation. I tried to imagine what I would do if that happened tonight. And then I imagined the Taliban breaking down the door of our guesthouse, only to find Eric, Barbara, Raquel, and a silent, pakol-wearing Afghan brother, stuffing his mouth with walnuts.

Suddenly, Hassan poked his head out onto the porch. “Guys, it’s a party! Let’s have wine!”

As if on cue, Ahmed appeared across the lawn, stalking towards us, looking pale and worried. He shouted something in Pashtun, at which Hassan’s face signaled that it was no longer a party.

Something had happened.

We stumbled from the guesthouse to find the main road calm and empty. The entire military force was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, a jeep thundered by, kicking up dust, brimming with soldiers, weapons, and neat coils of barbed wire.

“Zia!” I cried, “Kya wa?” I attempted. “Bahut police Afghanistan jaraha ho. Kya wa?”

Zia shook his head nervously.

“Did something happen?” I stammered.

He shifted his weight, before reluctantly nodding his head, yes.

My heart was pounding in my ears. “Taliban janaa?”

He looked away, before offering another guilty nod.

The Taliban were coming.

I looked to Eric, Barbara, and Raquel, then to our four guards, then to Hassan and his cousins. No one said anything for a long while. We had no jeep, and no means of fleeing if we needed to. It seemed that our worst fears had been confirmed…We then did the only thing one can do in such a harrowing and helpless situation.

We uncorked a bottle of wine and started aggressively drinking.

White wine, at first, then red. Then, when the power went out, we lit candles and switched to paint-stripping rice liquor.

EAT THE CHICKEN!!” slurred Ahmed, to our cries of laughter.

By ten-o’-clock, we were all shitfaced. (Except the guards, despite our gleeful attempts).

EAT THE CHICKEN!!” Ahmed insisted, thrusting a drumstick in Raquel’s face.

“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Raquel.

The Pashtuns howled. “A what?”

“I don’t eat meat.” She smiled.

They didn’t understand. “Just try a little!” bellowed Ahmed, practically forcing the chicken into her mouth, until she finally took a bite.

That’s when we heard the first gunshot. POP! You could hear it echo through the entire valley, even over the cacophony of our drool-faced booze fest.

POP! POP! POP! A volley of shots, followed by another, then another.

Then it went quiet.

Ahmed put down the chicken, and our guards’ Walkie-Talkies started to crackle with voices.

Hassan shouted something to them in Urdu, which I couldn’t understand, and after an awkward moment, Barbara’s guard, Rahmat responded calmly.

“He says it’s just the Border Police, that they’re just communicating with each other,” conveyed Hassan. “They’re making sure they’re all still awake. Everything’s okay.”

Twenty minutes later, another exchange of volleys sounded.

Then again ten minutes after that.

At midnight, our guards politely ordered us to return to our guesthouse, and after much unintelligible protest, we stumbled home in the dark.

No one spoke of the Taliban, or the gunshots. Because, as Rahmat explained, it was just the Border Patrol communicating.

“It was a group of university students celebrating,” said a Police Lieutenant the next day at the festival, when I casually asked for an explanation. “Pakistanis fire guns to celebrate. Even at weddings and birthdays,“ he chuckled.

In either case, the festival unfolded without incident. We ‘Ooh’ed and ‘Ahh’ed as the Kalash drank wine and danced, spinning in circles to the rhythmic beating of drums. Then they all shook tree branches over their heads, and when that was finished, they abruptly started throwing leaves at the women. Then they spun in circles again.

It wasn’t until one week later, when I was sadly saying goodbye to Zia as I boarded my jeep out of Chitral, that I bothered to bring up the gunshots we heard that night in Bumboret.

“I’ve been puzzling over this, and I can’t figure it out,” I said. “But why would the Border Patrol be communicating with gunshots when they all have Walkie Talkies?”

Zia said nothing.

“Also, why didn’t the Border Patrol communicate with each other on the other two nights? I mean, am I really supposed to believe that it was a group of university students? That anyone would be stupid enough to start firing guns in such a militarized area, and at such a tense time? Because, even if they did, there would be fifty soldiers upon them in seconds, which doesn’t account for why the we heard shots for forty-five minutes.”

Zia shifted his weight. Adjusted his watch.

“It was the Taliban, wasn’t it?”

He looked around nervously, before his mouth curled into a giddy, reluctant smile that said it all.

“Maybe…” he nodded, before bringing me in for a long, tight Mom-hug, and I boarded my jeep to Islamabad.

The road descended from the mountains to the Peshawar Plain, cutting south through Swat, a highly volatile and dangerous region of Taliban banners and anti-American slogans.

But I wasn’t scared.

I knew the inquisitive man sitting next to me was secret police—I caught a glimpse of his badge when he was paying the fare.

Plus, I still had a bag of walnuts in my pocket.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To learn more about the Kalash tribe, check out this story’s accompanying Photo Travelogue, “The Joshi Festival of the Black Kalash Tribe

For more gun-toting adventures with Zia, check out “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero,” or see a different face of Pakistan in “Kidnapped in Alipur

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Garden of the Corpse Flower: A Sumatran Jungle Quest for the Rarest Flower on Earth Thu, 29 May 2014 13:29:34 +0000


An angry, 260 pound Sumatran Orangutan is enough to spoil any vacation. To illustrate this, jungle guides in the Gunung Leuser rainforest enjoy showing visitors the scars they carry.

Jensen lifted his shirt, revealing deep laceration wounds across his back. “Mina did those,” he grinned. “This was her too,” he boasted, exhibiting a chunk missing from his wrist. “She’ll find us at some point in our trek today. She likes me.”

Corpse Flower-1

In the past two years of writing Backpackology, we’ve sought out secret CIA cities, midget theme parks, and Taliban adventures. We’ve met feral jungle children, drunken headhunters, and Viet Cong cobra slayers. I’ve always strived to bring you the most scintillating caliber of adventure, because unless I feel like Indiana Jones at all times then I become incapacitated with despair.

This week, we are looking for flowers.

But flowers are for sissies, you might say.

To which I’d respond: you’re for sissies. Flowers, you see, are simply badass as fuck—simply badass as fuck. Especially, as you’re about to discover, the ones that grow deep in the jungles of West Sumatra…

Corpse Flower-2

For this week’s Photo Travelogue—a botanical expedition for the rarest, most fascinating flower on earth: Amorphophallus titanum, The Corpse Flower—I’m going to show you that the kingdom of flora holds just as much wonder, violence, and mystery as the kingdom of fauna; it merely occurs on a different time scale, like a different plane of existence—an epic drama unfolding silently and invisibly beneath our noses. The premise of this drama is the ruthless struggle for light, water, and nutrients, for which each plants evolves its own unique battle strategy.

Sumatra is special for botanists in that the survival strategies of its plants are all completely horseshit insane.

Take for instance this cheery-looking vegetal:

Corpse Flower-3

To survive in the nutrient-poor soils of Sumatra’s highlands, the lithe and lovely Nepenthes plant has acquired an appetite for flesh. Most often its dinner comes in the form of frogs or insects, although the larger species enjoy a menu of rats, lizards, and small birds. It hunts by emitting a sweet scent from its playfully-colored pitchers, baiting animals to peek inside, promising fun and jokes. When the prey falls into the lip of the pitcher it does not find jokes, but instead a pool of acid. The slick, waxy walls of the trap make escape impossible and thus the prey is liquefied into milkshake for the plants enjoyment.
More macabre and fascinating is the rarest flower in the world: Amorphophallus titanum—the Corpse Flower.

What makes it so fascinating?

For that we must step back to a foggy, April night in 1878, in the same Sumatran jungle in which I stand today.

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Moonlight dappled the forest floor as Italian explorer-botanist Odoardo Beccari hacked through liana vines. Beccari was a rivetingly odd man who, like many other scientists of his time, enjoyed more enthusiasm than sense. Having spent the previous two years stuffing birds into glass jars in the jungles of Papua and Borneo—contracting malaria, smallpox, and elephantiasis on one ankle along the way—Beccari was inspired to conduct the first biological survey of Sumatra. This endeavor involved tracking down majestic new species and observing how they responded to different bullets fired from his elephant gun.

Beccari was about to make one of the most shocking discoveries in the history of natural science.

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On the bank of a starlit river, Beccari stumbled upon a peculiar crimson flower blooming directly out of the ground. It was the most striking inflorescence the botanist had ever seen—bell-shaped with green ribbed sides and a dazzling scarlet-frilled margin. Rising from its center, a yellow spadix rose up like a spire.

His local porters identified the specimen.

“Bunga bangkai!” they stammered, which forebodingly means, “dead body flower.”

Beccari likely would have sealed it in a jar, but there arose an issue: This cryptic “dead body flower” was quite large indeed. While the stem rose to eight inches, the flower itself soared over ten feet in height—the largest inflorescence on earth.

Per scientific protocol, Beccari whacked it down with his machete.

He then butchered it to smithereens, scribbled some notes, and exhumed the 130lb tuber root—which was so big his journal exclaimed, “Two men could scarcely carry it!”—before dragging it back to Italy.

This is where the story gets weird.

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Nobody believed him, of course. Beccari’s 130lb potato discovery was appraised with vigorous chuckles. Undeterred, Beccari buried the tuber in soil, intent to prove his colleagues wrong.

Years rolled by. As the rest of the scientific community moved on to research things that are relevant, Beccari sadly watered his vegetable. Every spring a single leaf would sprout, growing tall through the summer and inflating his hopes, before wilting and dying by fall.

It wasn’t until 1889, after ten years of waiting, that an enormous pod burst from the soil.

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Thousands of aristocrats flocked to attend the world’s largest blossom, anticipating rare beauty and the exotic scent of Sumatra. The pod had grown so large that scientists reached the improbable conclusion that it was pollinated by elephants.

The truth—as they soon learned—was far more disturbing.

Beccari’s flower was actually pollinated by flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies.

To which a discerning reader might ask, how does a flower attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies?

The aristocracy of Europe was in for an unpleasant surprise.

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The bloom began with a fat, yellow phallus erecting out of the pod, racing skyward at an astonishing 12cm per day. Reports describe scandalized governesses protecting young woman from “so indecent a sight.” Once the phallus reached ten feet in height, the flower splayed open, offending bystanders with its rancid perfume. Just trying to describe the stench, the poverty of the English language is revealed. The unambitious compare it to decomposing dog. In reality, it smells more like a dog that’s funneled a gallon of malt liquor, smoked a bong in a frat house, shit on itself, vomited on itself, violently choked on the vomit, died in a corner, and then began the slow and natural process of decomposition. The flower contains some of the foulest compounds on earth—dimethyl trisulfide (limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), dimethyl disulfide (dead body), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (Chloraseptic), and indole (mothballs).

Surprisingly it’s not the odor, nor the record height, nor the ‘giant misshapen phallus’ that makes Amorphophallus titanum so interesting…

Our hunt begins in the vibrant rainforests of Gunung Leuser, Aceh Province.


Centuries ago the Corpse Flower may have flourished in the jungles of Aceh, but due to habitat loss, only a few blossoms have been reported in the last decade. Aside from Gunung Leuser National Park, which remains the last stronghold of the mighty Sumatran Orangutan, most of Aceh’s rainforests have been destroyed to make room for another plant…

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Harvested for their full-bodied beans, Sumatran Coffee Trees are cultivated for another purpose, to produce a horrifying beverage called Kopi Lawak—more commonly known as “Civet cat coffee” or “Petrified cat shit steeped in kettle water.” Perhaps I made up the latter name, but that’s essentially what it is: The Asian Palm Civet (more accurately a weasel) grazes on ripe coffee beans before sharting them out in malformed turds, which are collected, roasted, and sold at an exorbitant $700 per kilo—making it the most expensive coffee in the world.

I’m not shitting you.

Civet coffee is allegedly superior to normal coffee because the civets only select “the highest quality beans” (which I doubt, as Civets are also known to eat garbage). Marketers also claim the beans undergo fermentation in the animal’s digestive system, where enzymes penetrate the bean and “improve” the flavor profile (hahaha).

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Cutting south from Aceh, we trace the Barisan mountain range to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra—the heartland of the Corpse Flower.  It is region of soaring volcanoes, raging rivers, deep caves, steaming hot springs, and the highest caldera lake in Southeast Asia—though these attractions are an afterthought for most visitors, who come here for one reason:

The bizarre and breathtaking flora.

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The truth is that Amorphophallus titanum isn’t really the largest flower in the world. In fact it isn’t even a flower. It’s actually a spadix of many flowers (like a lilac) wrapped in a spathe that resembles a giant petal, making it the world’s “largest un-branched inflorescence.”

The title of “world’s largest singular flower” belongs to another denizen of West Sumatra…

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Spanning a meter in diameter and weighing twenty pounds, the Rafflesia arnoldii is a stem-less, leaf-less, root-less holoparasite. Like most cool things, it is extremely rare and can only grow on vines of the Tetrastigma plant, marauding it of nutrients. While its vendetta against the Tetrastigma plant remains unexplained, what is known is that the Rafflesia pollinates by mimicking the smell of a rotting corpse to attract flesh-eating carrion beetles and carcass flies—much like the Amorphophallus.  For this reason it is also dubbed “The Corpse Flower,” however the Corpse Flower we’re hunting is far more elusive—and the reason why is spectacular.

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In order for an Amorphophallus to reproduce, there must be another Amorphophallus blooming at the exact same time in close proximity—which is highly, highly unimaginable. The reason why—and the reason why our quest is so daunting—is that the Amorphophallus titanum only blooms for twelve hours once every ten years. Because of this, and the fact that it can only grow in the remote jungles of West Sumatra, the Amorphophallus titanum is purported to be the rarest flower on earth.

West Sumatrans speak of it as if it were a phantom. Putra Dawot—a trekking guide who spends most of his time in the jungle—has only seen three Corpse Flowers in his entire life. Ulrich Rudolph—a local horticultural enthusiast and organizer of botanical tours—has only seen the flower twice.

Though my odds of seeing one appeared slim, I had an Ace up my sleeve:

I had met a random dude in an online chatroom named “Al Dava” who said he knew of a Corpse Flower about to bloom in the woods outside his cousin’s village.

“That’s called a scam,” explained Ulrich.

“He said he didn’t want any money.”

“Usually when a Corpse Flower blooms everyone in Bukittinggi knows about it months in advance. It’s a huge event,” Ulrich scratched his head. “Have fun getting raped, I guess.”

The next afternoon, Al Dava picked me up on his motorbike and we drove into the countryside.

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Al and his cousin belonged to the Minangkabau of West Sumatra—a matrilineal tribe famous for their buffalo worship and exotic, soaring rooftops. Insisting that the flower only blooms at night, Al detained me in his cousin’s hut all day, asking me endless questions while his aunt force-fed me offensively spicy eggs.

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When you’re trekking through starlit jungles with a flaming bamboo torch in one hand and a machete in the other, flower hunting seems a rugged and manly pastime. An hour had passed—an hour of fording muddy rivers, ripping leeches out of blood-soaked socks, and stubbing our toes over roots in the dark—when my nostrils started to burn. Either the Amorphophallus was close or we were nearing Al’s previous victims—the stench of corpses curdled the night breeze.

Yelling pierced the darkness as Al and his cousin dashed ahead. When I caught up they were standing on the edge of a clearing.

In the pale moonlight, a massive inflorescence towered overhead, its magnificent yellow spadix and scarlet frills soaring up from the forest floor. The smell was heinous beyond imagination. Like burying your face in the ass crack of a trucker.

Al squealed with delight, “Incredible!”

For a long moment we all stood there in silent awe.

Then the Sumatrans lost interest, before they started chain-smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at bats.

“Mister! Mister!” Al shouted. “My cousin says there are many more blossoms like this.”

“Right now?”

“He says he sees them all the time when he comes to collect betel nuts.”

“He’s mistaken,” I chuckled.

The man stammered in Indonesian.

“He says you can see tomorrow.”

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The next morning Al’s aunt appeared with more spicy eggs, before Al’s cousin showed me another Amorphophallus titanum.

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And then another…

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And then another—this particular specimen stood an incredible 10”3’, but wilted and collapsed just before we found it.

While the abundance of blooms could be a matter of lucky timing, I theorize that the Corpse Flower’s blossoms were bio-synchronized…

By the scientific authority vested in me by Wikipedia and the wise Google Search Engine, I now present to you my “Bamboo Alarm Clock Theory:”

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Bamboo poses a number of mysteries for scientists; the most scintillating of which is that every 65-100 years, an entire sub-species of bamboo will flower and then die en masse. What makes this so unbelievable is that regardless of each plant’s geographical location—be it in the forests of Sichuan, an arboretum in Amsterdam, or a hippie’s bathroom in Williamsburg—every single member of that species will flower and die at the exact same time, in perfect synchronicity, as if by hocus-pocus Jesus trickery. Scientists are positively dumbfucked.

One theory suggests a sort of cellular alarm clock. I suspect that Corpse Flowers use this same alarm-clock mechanism to coordinate blooms, ensuring that they can pollinate within such a stunted time frame.

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But that still doesn’t explain the hundreds of non-blossoming Amorphophallus titanums we found in the forests outside Palembah village—an impossibly higher density than any of Sumatra’s national parks or the celebrated Palupuh Botanical Reserve. What’s most astonishing is that nobody seems to know about it—not even the local villagers, who were instead killing off the giant flowers out of fear, believing it caused a horrifyingly titled “skin-fall-off sickness.”

Off course this was nonsense, which Al demonstrated by vigorously rubbing the flower’s spathe with his face (then screaming in pain to his cousin’s alarm) (then laughing for several minutes at his clever joke).

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I’ve since written to the World Wildlife Federation, UNESCO, and Indonesian National Park Services (PHKA), informing them of Palembah village and suggesting that the forest be surveyed and considered for reservation status.

I hope that some day Palembah jungle makes it to magazines and documentaries as the Palembah Amorphophallus Titanum Reserve. I hope that some day this special place doesn’t end up like Aceh, or Riau, or the other three million hectares of Sumatran rainforest that disappear every year—chopped down by loggers or coffee farmers and squandered for a $700 bag of weasel shit.

For now, the jungles surrounding Palembah village remain an unsung natural wonder, a West Sumatran travel secret, the last garden of the Corpse Flower.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For an ill-fated jungle misadventure in search of a rare monkey, check out the travel story “Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: A Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus

Or check out more fun facts and pretty photos by heading to Borneo in the geological Photo Travelogue, “The Biggest Darkness: A Journey to the World’s Largest Cave Chamber” Or peruse from other titles by clicking the “Photo Travelogues” tab at the top of the page.

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Bungle in the Jungle, Five Days in the Hide: An Ill-Fated Search for the Rare and Elusive Nasalis Larvatus Sun, 06 Apr 2014 15:33:04 +0000

Cover 2

“Hell is not hot, or cold. Nor is it deep below ground,
or somewhere in the sky. Instead it is a place on Earth
filled with sucking bogs, disfiguring diseases,
and millions of tiny flesh-eating creatures.
Hell is a jungle, and it is monstrously green.”
-Greig Beck


On the fourth day, a German couple and their guide discovered me in the Kumbang Bum Bum jungle hide. I was sitting by the view hole in my underwear, eating peanut butter covered in broken glass with my hands. My filthy, skinny face was shaded with stubble and a sharp pointed stick rested on my lap. I must have looked just as shocked as they did—you don’t come across many people in the middle of the Malaysian rainforest, a day’s walk from the nearest village.

I smiled and waved.

“Where is your guide?” barked their ranger. “How long have you been in this hide?”

“Four days. Do you have food?”

“Four days?!” shouted the German woman. “What are you doing here?”

I shifted my weight. The truth was that I wanted to see a rare monkey and I figured the best way of doing this was to trek into the middle of the rainforest, climb into a wooden box, and patiently sit there for an entire week. This seemed a brilliant idea to me at the time; I didn’t realize it would end in blood and hunger and demonic giant squirrels.

I’d like to clarify that this quest wasn’t just for any rare monkey, but the highly endangered male Nasalis larvatus or “Proboscis monkey”—the most woefully absurd species to ever evade natural selection.

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Endemic to Malaysia and Indonesia, the male Proboscis monkey  is vexed with awkward webbed feet, a grotesque potbelly, and a pervasive, rancid stench that heralds its every arrival. To make matters worse, it appears to have a giant, horrible penis dangling from its face. This ungainly penis-nose grows so long that it can obstruct the mouth, and it turns red and swollen whenever the monkey is angry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, over 70% of male Proboscis monkeys are virgins. Accordingly they are all ravenously horny and their tiny, frustrated monkey boners only desist when they’re sleeping.

But the true absurdity of the species is only revealed when it is handed a banana.

The monkey’s stomach is lined with powerful bacteria to help it digest leaves (thus the potbelly), but whenever the monkey ingests fruit, the result is thunderous and catastrophic flatulence. And I’m not talking a whimsical case of the toots—these episodes are dramatic enough to rupture organs, so in effect the penis-nosed, potbellied, webbed-toed, horny monkey violently farts itself to death.

Obviously I needed to see one.

“Why do you want to see a proboscis monkey so badly?” asked my Singaporean hotel receptionist.

“Because it looks like it has a penis for a nose. Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Oh. Yeah, it does.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Ha Ha.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Go to the Teman Negara rainforest, maybe you can find them there.”

“Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

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I’ve recently come to peace with the fact that I am an eight-year-old hiding in a respectable adult’s body, so I’m going to reference Barney the dinosaur now. I remember watching a Barney episode where he lures the children on a “jungle adventure,” forcing pith helmets over their heads and dragging them into the wilderness to sing songs about lions and elephants and other species that don’t belong in jungles. Somehow all the children survive and everyone has a great time and little eight-year-old Steven in suburban Massachusetts is forever obsessed with the idea of having a jungle adventure—even today. Thus I giddily struck out for my week in Teman Negara, one of the oldest and most bio-diverse rainforests on earth.

Along with a daypack of the barest essentials, I packed a loaf of sliced bread, two glass jars of peanut butter and Nutella, six jugs of water, an industrial bag of chocolate bars big enough to last a nuclear winter, and five cans of hilariously inedible curry—the label of which depicted a mother happily serving her family what looked like dysentery.

The jungle hide I booked was festively named Kumbang Bum Bum, located over a salt lick in the most remote and inaccessible region of the park. To reach it would require a full day of happy, sunny hiking—or so I pictured as I wandered into the jungle, naively humming Barney classics to myself and devouring chocolate bars.

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A rainforest is much wetter than you might expect. Also, hotter. Within several minutes, my clothes were drenched with sweat and I was in no mood for humming. Instead I focused my energies on mopping sweat, swatting at malarial mosquitoes, ripping leeches out of my blood-soaked socks, moaning at trees, and trying to decipher my shitty, free park map that was clearly drawn by a baboon.

Within an hour, I had eaten all the chocolate bars.

I collapsed against the buttress of a strangler fig, cursing Barney the corporate vampire for whispering lies and false hopes into the ears of gullible youngsters. The children never sang songs about malaria, leeches, heatstroke, tiger maulings, killer ants, venomous snakes, civet cats, amoebic meningitis, or getting lost and starving to death. The jungle is a miserable, shitty experience and anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to destroy you.

Fun Fact: You can see further underwater than in a rainforest. The foliage was so dense and suffocating that I could only glimpse a few yards in any direction. There were no elephants and lions present. There weren’t even bright colors. Only occasionally was the green punctuated by an orchid or flitting butterfly.

Instead the jungle is an auditory experience, rich with a million buzzing, whirring, chirping, and howling signs of life—life hidden behind the barrier of green.

The bag of chocolates gave me a tummy ache, so I plopped down next to a river, where I met many friendly leeches. When I stood to retreat, my plastic food bag split open and I was forced to continue the journey cradling groceries in my arms like a newborn.

Around this time the late-afternoon downpour began. I’d fortunately packed an umbrella, which kept my hair dry as I watched my useless map soak with rain and disintegrate.

It was nearly 9PM when I stumbled into Kumbang Bum Bum, an oversized wooden box on stilts with bunk beds, a bench, and a narrow viewing window—and by bunk beds, I mean wooden boards covered in animal shit. Obviously the hide was home to some jungle critter—though I wouldn’t make its horrible acquaintance till morning.

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I awoke to find two large eyes staring at me.

The creature was crouched several feet away, covered in black fur with blonde patches on its belly and a massive bushy tail. It was a monstrous squirrel the size of a beagle and it was sitting amidst my groceries, casually demolishing a loaf of bread.

“FUCKER!” I roared, as the hell beast leapt out the window. It poked its head back in to watch as I cursed over my groceries, before securing them on a rope from the ceiling.

The squirrel had eaten half of my bread and even though I still had peanut butter, Nutella, and processed curry, it was nary enough rations to last the week. I had to protect what little food I had left.

The squirrel eyed the dangling groceries, flicking its tail, plotting. It turned to me with its big, doughy eyes. It was very adorable, like a giant, cuddly stuffed animal. I stepped outside to find a stick with which to hit it.

No monkeys were seen.

When I returned, the squirrel was latched to the swinging bag, rooting through a hole in the side.

“Shoo!” I stammered.

The squirrel emerged with the bag of bread.

“SHOO!” I screeched, charging at it with my stick.

The squirrel sprang to safety as I swung.


The bag split open like a piñata, sending curry cans bouncing across the hide. I then watched in slow motion as the glass jars of peanut butter and Nutella floated to floor, where they shattered into pieces with a sickening crack.

My face crumpled with despair.

When I eventually recovered from my rage-blackout, the giant squirrel was gone and I was salvaging glass-speckled condiments into plastic parcels for later.

My stomach growled.

If I wanted to stay the week, I would need to find new food. Surely there were fruit trees nearby. I could make a jungle feast: diced mangoes and bananas over roasted, grain-fed squirrel. I imagined that a sentient stuffed animal would make a taste sensation—tenderized to perfection with a stick and cooked over a lighter. Squirrel sashimi could be nice too. Why not both? The possibilities seemed infinite.

That afternoon I gazed out across the steamy, monkey-less jungle, fantasizing a thousand culinary prospects.

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Three days passed and the rainforest appeared lifeless. I had always been led to believe that rainforests were constipated with wildlife, and though they do contain half of the world’s species, we seem to forget the difference between biodiversity and abundance. The scientific truth is that you’ll find more living organisms in a conifer forest than any jungle.

As my boredom intensified into hunger, I left the hide in search of fruit trees. This activity entailed pottering through the woods in my boxers and sneakers, tripping over roots, and sweating from my eyeballs. My two-hour exertion yielded no fruit, although I did succeed in making myself even hungrier.

Upon returning to the hide, I froze in the doorway. Scattered across the floor were dented curry cans, crumbs crawling with ants, and the empty, shredded remains of my bread bag. The bloated squirrel was perched on the windowsill, gloating at me with his stupid, adorable eyes.

I hated the squirrel and I wanted it dead.

Something snapped in my head and a guttural noise erupted from chest. I charged at the window. The creature leapt into the foliage. I sprinted out of the hide in pursuit, hurling sticks and rocks in blind rage. It was like Looney Tunes, but sad and depressing. The squirrel was simply too nimble to chase down. So eventually I decided to outwit it:

After choking down half a can of bowel-flavored curry, I fished out the chicken bits and laid them outside the window of the hide. I then hid behind the windowsill with an arsenal of rocks, listening for noise. I knew normal squirrels didn’t prey on chickens, but I figured this Godzilla beast was liable to drag off even babies.

And so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Twilight fell and the forest changed its face. The nocturnal jungle is not a happy place when you’re alone. The gnarled, ancient trees turn sinister in the darkness. An unshakable feeling sets in that something is watching you—and almost certainly something is. Your anxiety melts into paranoia. You scan the tree line for tigers.

The hide didn’t have a lock and so I cradled my stick, listening to the jungle’s night shift roar to life with a thousand shrieks and whistles.

BANG! Something bumped the hide.

I grabbed a rock and leapt to my feet, beaming my flashlight out the window.

Two golden eyes shone back at me.

Something big. It had a snout like a dog, but with muted spots like a leopard.

As my eyes adjusted, a chill ran down my spine.

I was staring into the face of a giant civet cat, snapping chicken bones in its powerful jaws. It paused to stare back at me, sizing me up.

The flashlight trembled in my hands. I didn’t know if it was dangerous, but I wasn’t a fan of its sharp teeth. I slowly diminished behind the windowsill before extinguishing all the lights and barricading the door shut. I then sat up in bed, cursing Mother Nature and swatting at mosquitoes until I passed out. Unbeknownst to me, everything was about to change.

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As the morning mist rolled over the empty salt lick, I stared out from the hide with the starving eyes of a refugee. There’s something wonderful to be said about hunger and rationing—at least at a privileged level. Deprived of your most elemental need, your day-to-day problems and insecurities are stripped naked and pointless, and your every thought is consecrated to your next meal. Suddenly a slice of bread seems as glorious as a Christmas blowjob. A dirty handful of Nutella covered in glass shards makes you burst into musical number. You start to view the food you eat every day differently. There’s something about it that feels strangely spiritual and enlightening.

I had just de-glassed a wad of peanut butter when the Germans arrived. Tillman and Hannah were a retired couple from Munich, whose hobbies included yelling in German, Mars Bars, and complaining about nature. We bonded over the latter, so they kindly offered me their food.

A camping stove was produced, and after they unpacked their bags on the empty bunks, we huddled around to feast on hot noodles.

I broke the silence. “Last night I saw a civet cat!”

Tillman shrugged, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

“No,” I sighed. “Just some birds. Oh, and a big squirrel.”

Their guide shot up straight. “A big squirrel? What did it look like?”

“Like a big fucking squirrel.”

“How big?”

“Two, three feet? Black fur.”

“With a brown stomach?!?”

“I tried to kill it with a stick. It ate my bread.”

The guide’s face washed with horror. “What?”

“I hit it with a few rocks though.”

The guide dove into his bag. “A Malayan Giant Squirrel! Very rare,” he said, before handing me a plastic information card. “Is that the squirrel?”

The card displayed a few dozen portraits of animals, beneath a giant header reading, “WWF TOTALLY PROTECTED SPECIES: Fine for hunting or killing, 300,000 MYR ($90,000US) and/or 10 years jail.” At the bottom of the card, sandwiched between an orangutan and a blue whale, was the stupid, adorable giant squirrel.

“No, I don’t think that’s it.”

“Yes!” he cried. “It must be!”


“Wow, so rare!” the Germans exclaimed. “Very lucky!”

“Nope,” I frowned. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Why aren’t you happy?” shouted Tillman.

“Because I sat in the jungle for four days and all I wanted to see was a proboscis monkey.”

Tillman cocked his head. “What? Why?”

“Because it looks like it has a penis for a nose. Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

“Those live in Borneo, you idiot.”


It turned out he was right.


Three days later I flew to Malaysian Borneo, and within ten minutes of wandering into Bako National Park, I came across a crowd jostling beneath a tree. They were pointing into the dense foliage, murmuring with excitement.

A horrible stench singed my nostrils. I pinched my nose. For a second I thought I could hear a gassy Pfft! Pfft! Pfft!

My heart pounded. After two weeks of searching, all my dreams seemed about to come true.

The leaves rustled and cameras shot up. As the branches began to part, I held my breath.

“It’s magnificent!” screamed a woman, as fat, demented, penis-nosed face appeared, tea-bagging its own mouth.

I gasped with delight.

Then another face appeared. Then another.

“Much better than orangutans!” commented one man.

Then time seemed to slow as I stood there frozen in rapture, watching as the monkeys descended from the branches around us—their phallic noses majestically smacking their chins, their revolting guts wobbling in the heat, their tiny, pink monkey boners standing at full salute.

I slowly removed the banana from my pocket.

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Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

One time I set out to find wild cobras. This also ended terribly.  Check out “Steve McDonald Pokes Death in the Face with a Stick for Your Reading Entertainment: A DIY Cobra Hunt”

For an even more disastrous jungle adventure, watch me send Intern Lydia into the Laotian jungle to fight for her own survival with an AK-47 assault rifle and a bayonet duct-taped to a stick in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

Or for another survival story, try to hitchhike across the Gobi desert in “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia

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Photo Travelogue: The Biggest Darkness (An Expedition to the Largest Cave Chamber on Earth) Mon, 31 Mar 2014 15:05:08 +0000


When I was a little fat kid and my favorite computer game was Microsoft Encarta, I promised myself that one day I would visit the Sarawak Chamber in Borneo. I wanted to see the biggest darkness. I wanted to stand before the largest cave chamber on earth—large enough to fit ten Boeing jets nose to tail. But mostly I just wanted to play with ropes and helmets. My mother had recently shown me a documentary film in which Brendan Frasier went caving and found a lost jungle of dinosaurs and mole people, and though I figured he was lucky, I was hoping for that.

So for this week’s Photo Travelogue I’m taking you there, on a twelve-hour advanced expedition deep into the earth’s crust, to an alien and unknown world where only the most intrepid dare wander.

But first I’m going to tell you about my bizarre and unwholesome fetish…

Ready kids??

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Behold! The most wonderful, sexy inanimate object in the natural world…



If you don’t know why I’m so excited about mineralized seashells crushed underwater millions and millions of years ago, please, allow me to explain my nerd boner.

Unlike other boring, stupid rocks, limestone is porous and soluble in water, meaning that not only does rain flow through it like a sponge, but it dissolves the limestone like salt!!

So the fuck what?

That means that the rain acts like a carving knife, making limestone responsible for some of the most breath-taking geological formations on earth…

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Like the phallic towers of Cappadocia in Turkey…

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…Or the karsts of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

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…Or the peaks of Yangshuo in China

Gunung Mulu-6

Here at Gunung Mulu in Borneo, rain has whittled the limestone into sharp pinnacles, making it the worst place in the world to parachute.

But to glimpse the most spectacular limestone formations, one must journey underground…


Before we start our caving expedition proper, I should probably explain how the caves of Gunung Mulu were formed… But this isn’t a science blog and I know that if I write anything more academic than Dora The Explorer, it will send half of you dipshits scurrying back to Facebook. So worry not! I’ve chewed and digested all the big science stuff and will now vomit it into your mouths like a mother bird to her chicks, so you don’t have to do any abstract thinking.

Pretend you have a giant sugar cube the size of a football field. Now climb on top of it with a cup of water and dump it in the exact middle. Repeat this process 20 million times. Like the sugar cube, limestone dissolves in water (albeit at a much slower rate). As cracks and fissures fill with rain, they bore holes into the thick limestone shelf. Once the water reaches a more resistant layer of limestone, it alters its course and a river is formed, creating the cave.

But what makes the caves of Borneo so special is that there’s something else powerfully and invisibly at play…

Gunung Mulu-9

Let’s do the sugar cube thing again, but with one exciting twist! Instead of filling your cup with water, find a bucket of Mafia-strength, hooker-dissolving Hydrochloric acid.

Borneo is swathed in thick tropical rainforests, and when rain is exposed to high levels of CO2 (like in jungle soil), it turns into corrosive carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is much weaker than Hydrochloric acid, but as you’re about to see, it eats through limestone like cupcakes.

In just a few million years, rain has carved central Borneo into an epic network of underground tunnels, boasting soaring cathedral chambers and forests of stalactites and stalagmites. But the cherry on top are the geomorphic giants like Deer Cave—one of the most spectacular natural wonders in Asia…

Gunung Mulu-11

Deer Cave is so massive that you could fly a Boeing jet through it. It was believed to be the largest cave passage on the planet until 2009, when a slightly larger passage was discovered in Vietnam.

Deer Cave still clings to the spotlight, however, as the stage for one of the most dramatic animal gatherings on earth…

Gunung Mulu-12

There are an estimated 3 million bats living in Deer Cave, inhaling on average 30 tons of mosquitoes per night—though I can’t imagine why or how any normal person would measure that. Each sunset, millions of bats emerge from the cave en masse, swooping and swarming in spectacular aerial displays. The phenomenon attracts tourists from around the world, who seem eager to greet the shrieking rain cloud of guano.

But for those who wander into the caves, there are more bizarre and terrifying creatures waiting in the dark…

Gunung Mulu-13

“Don’t touch the Hairy Murry! It will kill you!” Park Ranger Syriah flailed her arms.

We had barely passed through the mouth of Deer Cave when I bent over to touch the giant insect.

“Poison! Poison!” she cried.

It seemed miraculous to me that life can flourish in a place without sunlight, where the only available foods were wet rocks and clay.

The key to life, it turned out, was just above my head, being showered out of a bat’s rectum.

Rich with nutrients from the outside world, guano provides food for cave insects, which provides food for insectivores, which provides food for bigger, stranger things—albino scorpions, eyeless crabs, echo-locating swiftlets, giant venomous centipedes, snakes with infrared vision. Through this process, the great Circle of Life emerges from a foul heap of bat crap.

Jeanette Cave-1

While Deer Cave is open to the public, the more difficult caves require a permit—which is only granted to experienced cavers.

“Sarawak Chamber is very dangerous and many people get hurt,” explained Syriah, handing me my helmet and rope. “You’ve been caving before?”

“Of course!” I scoffed. “A few times in America. But it was very different from this,” I explained, because those times were make-believe and I’d never been caving.

“Excellent,” she nodded. “But we still require all cavers to demonstrate their skills first.”

“Sure! How do I do that?”

By signing up for more expensive caving tours. That’s how. If I wanted to glimpse the biggest darkness, I needed to pass a test-expedition…

Gunung Mulu-10

My friend Leon and I scanned the menu of expeditions. “What’s the coolest cave?” I asked Syriah.

“Clearwater!” she fired. “It’s the biggest cave system in the world by air volume!”

“What’s it like?”

“Well, it’s eight hours underground. First you climb up big boulders in the dark for two hours. They are very sharp and they cut your hands. Then you rappel down a rope and crawl over slippery mud that smells like guano.”

“We’re crawling in guano.”

“Exactly! But then you reach the first squeeze and you have to get down a ten-meter crack in the rock using only your hands. It’s extremely tight. You can’t even turn your head! And at the bottom, there’s a beautiful chamber of cave formations. So, so beautiful! Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones… And many insects. They attack your face.”

“Wow, this all sounds great.”

“Then there’s another tight squeeze. It’s very hot. Then the passage spits you in an underground river and you have to wade for 2km with all your clothes on. It’s the best.”

“Sounds it!”

“Much more fun than Sarawak Chamber.”

Gunung Mulu-15

Clearwater Cave was just as thrilling as Syriah promised—though she neglected a few highlights.

Like the part where we had to traverse a cliff face covered with venomous spiders.

Or the part where we were never provided harnesses.

Or the part where Leon and I laughed at a dick-shaped stalagmite and our guide went ballistic, shouting that we’d insulted the cave spirits.

Or the part where we had to climb over painful speleothems for eight hours.

Gunung Mulu-14

Speleothems are cave formations made from calcite, derived from dissolving limestone. By observing speleothems—along with the sediments, minerals, textures, wall markings, and even dust—geologists can read a cave like a history book; each clue tells tales of water movement and climate change, coloring in the tectonic backstory of our planet.

Gunung Mulu-17

The deeper we descended underground, the more extraterrestrial the speleothems appeared—from stalactites and columns to alien-looking egg shapes and spiny coral formations—until Clearwater felt less like a cave and more like a high budget laser tag arena.

Gunung Mulu-16

To reach Sarawak Chamber, the largest cave chamber on earth, the twelve-hour journey is broken into three legs.

First you must trek for three hours in the jungle, frequently getting lost, fording rivers, and slashing along hog paths with a machete. Eventually you reach the mouth of the cave—a large crevasse in the mountainside, from which a river flows.

Gunung Mulu-18

The second leg involves wading upriver through a narrow underground canyon. And by “wading,” I mean splashing and pouting through freezing, waist-deep torrents, tripping over boulders in the dark, and swatting at the buzzing miasma of insects around your headlamp. Occasionally you must scramble over waterfalls, and at one point you get to accidentally fall off a rope traverse and crash into an icy pool, before apologizing and splashing up current to the opposite bank.

This portion lasts several hours and concludes with your guide casually instructing you to scale a vertical rock wall out of the rapids.

Gunung Mulu-19

The final stretch to the Sarawak Chamber requires a long, tedious trek over guano-plastered scree. As you climb, Sarawak’s massive antechamber opens up before you, hemmed by soaring, megalithic walls of limestone.

After what feels like hours, you arrive at a non-descript pile of boulders, where the guides announce that you’ve reached the lip of the Sarawak Chamber…

Gunung Mulu-20

Park Ranger Harvey’s flashlight danced across the arch of the entrance as we peered into the chamber—an impenetrable ocean of black. This would be the end of our journey—to venture any further was suicide; our high-powered LEDs were no match for the vastness of Sarawak Chamber, and without any point of reference in the dark emptiness, we were certain to get lost.

“We can’t see anything,” muttered my friend Grant. “What a piece of shit!”

Clearly Grant had unrealistic expectations of the biggest darkness. He simply didn’t realize the impossible scope of Sarawak—but he wasn’t to blame for that.

I can’t understand why Boeing jets is the standard unit of cave measurement. Who the fuck is lining up ten jets in a cave? Who is lining up ten jets anywhere? Unless you happen to collect airplanes, this analogy is as abstract as me saying the cave is 656 Honey Boo Boos wide.

So, for the purposes of edification and entertainment, allow me to convey its enormity in more inventive terms.

Gunung Mulu-21

To expect a headlamp to work in the Sarawak Chamber would be like pointing a flashlight across seven football fields and expecting to find cheerleaders on the other end. The chamber measures an astonishing 2,296 feet long, 1,312 feet wide, and 229 feet high—flaunting the same cubic volume as 7,840 Olympic-sized swimming pools. That’s enough space to warehouse 757 Statue of Libertys, if she’d just lower her goddamn arm. Although the height of the chamber isn’t as monumental as its breadth, you could still stack 3 White Houses, 35 Michael Jordans, or 63 Rachel McAdams’ foreheads.

Gunung Mulu-22

We decided to switch off our headlamps and experience the darkness for a few minutes. I didn’t expect what happened next.

Absolute darkness is as fascinating as it is rare; even if you can’t see, typically there are still a few lumen present. But in the complete absence of light, the brain falls into somersaults. Confusion sets in. It becomes difficult to tell if your eyes are open or closed. You can sense an alarm bell in the back of your mind as your body starts firing adrenaline. And then, as if someone is cranking up a volume knob, your hearing kicks in.

The cave that seemed silent was now roaring with noise—the clicking of bats, the flutter of swiftlets, the distant groan of the river, the tapping of insects feeling through the dark, scuttling over rocks that haven’t seen sunlight since the dawn of our planet.

Gunung Mulu-23

I have seen the biggest darkness. I have stood before the largest cave chamber on earth.

I wanted to conclude this Photo Travelogue with a shot of the Sarawak Chamber, but as I stood before it with my headlamp, that seemed laughable.

But perhaps there was another way to conquer its darkness…

Balancing my camera on a rock, I cranked the Xenon flash lamp to a blinding +2.0f/30,000 lumen and switched the Long-Exposure setting to thirty seconds. I then asked everyone to train their high-power LEDs into the chamber—an insane total of 96,000 lumen—enough light to pop a bat’s head off—before pressing the shutter.

It took the camera a minute of rendering before an image flashed across the screen. I stared at it for a moment as a smile crept across my face.

It was the perfect representation of the largest cave chamber on earth, a fine finale for our photographic expedition:

It was a snapshot of 96,000 lumen being swallowed in the invincible blackness of Sarawak Chamber, the biggest darkness.

Gunung Mulu-24


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more fun facts and pretty pictures, journey the Silk Road across China in the Photo Travelogue “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo

Or delve into the world of nomadic eagle hunters in the Mongolian Photo Travelogue “A Steppe Too Far: Eagle Hunters, Cultural Darwinism, and Getting Banned in Kazakhstan

This photo travelogue would not have been possible without the contributions of my travel buddy Anders Lundell. Thank you for lending this post your excellent lens and even more excellent eye.

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Slumber Party with Headhunters Fri, 21 Feb 2014 16:19:50 +0000


Steel flashed in the jungle mist. JoJo clenched his machete, fighting through rattan vines as the hog path lured us deeper into the Borneo rainforest. He nervously glanced over his shoulder. “Mister. There aren’t any headhunters left. It is 2014.”

I wacked at foliage with my blade. “Headless bodies have been found,” I exclaimed. “Over a hundred reports in the last ten years. How do you explain that?”

The translator shrugged. “Tigers.”


He nodded.

“And the ones with their hearts cut out?”

JoJo cursed under his breath. “Asiatic bears,” he said. “I do not know. I am not scientist.”

A tribal longhouse appeared through the greenery, built of wood and palm-thatch over soaring ironwood stilts. JoJo sheathed his blade.

“If these rumors are true, if headhunters do exist, this is where you’ll find them,” he grimaced, beckoning me towards the entrance.


“Dayak people creep me out,” JoJo whispered.

Light shafts sliced through the dim and dusty longhouse, exposing tribal carvings, hanging baskets, and family portraits involving bone piercings and feathers. Battling the Pier 1 Imports vibe were chintzy Jesus posters, a 1998 calendar of the Twelve Apostles, and a sickly plastic Christmas tree next to some headhunting swords.

I didn’t know how to broach the topic of “Do you guys still cut off people’s heads around here,” so I made small talk with the tribespeople, complimented their Christmas tree and creepy portraits, and then asked if they still cut off people’s heads around here.

Apa!?” recoiled an old man with a whimsical beard.

JoJo repeated the question.

The old man mumbled, rolling his eyes.

“Did he say yes?”

JoJo stared blankly. “No, he didn’t. He says there’s no violence here.”

The old man mumbled confusedly, stroking his beard.

“He says the headhunting happens downriver in Pahauman district, near Pontianak, at the Saham Longhouse.”

My jaw fell off.

“He says they are very dangerous and kill many people, even women and babies. Once they killed a whole village in Sambas. He says it’s on Youtube.”


“He says you don’t want to go there though. Emotions are high.”

“Of course not,” I nodded. “What was the district?”


“I need to get to Pahauman!” I told Pontianak Travel.

“I need a translator!” I told Borneo Adventures.

“I need a translator to take me to Pahauman!” I told Mentari Tours.

“HA HA HA HA!” they replied. “No.”

“But I’m writing an article about the headhunters!” I said. “I’m a journalist sort of!”

Suddenly no one spoke English.

“I will take you!” cried the young man at the bus office. “But under one condition: that you don’t mention Madura while we’re there.”

“What? Okay!” I cried. “Are you a guide?”

“No, I only sell bus tickets,” he muttered. “But I can take you and you can pay me forty dollars.”
“I’m Steve,” I said.

Saiful was a young Malay guy with a peevish grin, a few missing teeth, and the motor skills of a drag racer on ketamine.

“What happens if I mention Madura!” I screamed as our motorcycle blurred out of Pontianak. “What’s that mean!”

“DON’T TALK ABOUT MADURA, THAT IS BAD,” shouted Saiful, cutting off a truck. “They want to kill people from Madura!”

“What’s Madura!”

Saiful explained that Madura is a sandy, poverty-stricken shithole off the coast of Java with a devastating overpopulation crisis and no natural resources. To solve the problem, the Indonesian government instituted a policy called “Transmigrasi,” relocating Madurese people to islands like Kalimantan and Papua, which were low-density and abundant in resources.

The result was a bunch of uneducated, urban Madurese islanders being plunked down in the middle of the Borneo rainforest with the vague instructions to build a farm, but without any experience or know-how to do so. The government provided them shitty shanty homes that would fall apart after three years, along with the vague promise of financial aid—though this vanished through the Indonesian crazy-straw of corruption and most people were unable to buy basic equipment or even fertilizer.

With no food or means of income, the Madurese settlers took the easiest course of action available—robbing and pillaging from their neighbors. Petty crime and murder rates boomed. Illegal logging burgeoned and massive swaths of rainforest evaporated in months. The logging roads left behind damned rivers, creating malarial swamps, devastating the jungle ecosystem.

Seeing as Dayak culture is based entirely on the jungle—which provides them food, shelter, medicine, and other basic needs—it’s complete destruction was not appreciated.

Bigotry blossomed into hate crimes, culminating in 1997 when Madurese people stabbed several Dayaks at a concert. Dayak retaliation came in ritual form, as a ceremonial “Red Bowl” was passed from longhouse to longhouse—a signal calling the tribes to war in a time of emergency. This looked like the last scene of Pocahontas, except there wasn’t a John Smith and the natives started decapitating all the settlers.


Dayaks overran the police and West Kalimantan ignited in genocide. Amidst the roiling smoke and bloodshed, the old tradition of headhunting was reborn.

While I still haven’t watched the alleged Youtube video, I’ve since read countless articles and reports detailing the conflict surrounding Pahauman—stories of pickup trucks full of Dayaks waving severed heads; photos of Madurese villages reduced to cinders; reports of babies being lanced on parang blades and road blocks killing any fleeing Madurese. In a macabre flourish, some of the victims’ hearts were plucked from their warm bodies and eaten by the Dayaks, who believed this would give them magic powers.

In the span of ten years, over one thousand Madurese were murdered in Kalimantan, with hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes. Somehow the outside world never cared to notice.

Today things are more peaceful, Saiful assured. “There aren’t many Madurese left here. The Dayaks killed two-hundred in Pahauman and the rest fled back to Madura.”

I shook my head in horrified disbelief. “Was coming here a dangerous idea?”

“Are you Madurese?”


“Then it’s okay!” Saiful cheered.

I swallowed hard. “”How are you sure? Have you visited Saham Longhouse before?”

“It’s okay!” he repeated, leaning on the accelerator.


An elderly tribeswoman gazed down at us from the longhouse verandah, her decrepit breasts airing in the breeze.

“Do exactly as I do,” warned Saiful. “These are very conservative people with many rules called adat. ”


“Like, if you see a pretty girl inside and she waves to you, don’t have sex with her, or else you must give her family two pigs and a gong. That is adat.

“Got it,” I said, noting this in my Moleskine.

Saiful pointed to a wooden statue.

“Now before we enter the longhouse, you must kiss the guardian idol.”

“Is that part of adat?”


I did as instructed. The old woman let out a shriek.

Orang Barut! Orang Barut!” she cried, before scampering out of sight.

“I lied. You don’t kiss the statue. Ha Ha Ha Ha,” Saiful chuckled, before barging into the longhouse.

We were greeted at the door by a mob of staring Dayaks, replete with intricate tattoos and plunging earlobes.

I shifted my weight and smiled. “Hello.”

The Dayaks pointed down the longhouse. Saiful nodded. “This way. We must speak with the chief.”

I followed Saiful down the long, long, long communal living hall, past endless family apartments, past fishing traps and dusty barrels, past a group of old man chewing beetle nut and splitting rattan vines. Upon reaching the last apartment, Saiful pounded on the door.

A cry came from the other side.

“The chief is coming,” announced Saiful.

I nodded, nervously cradling my machete.


The door flew open, revealing a stubby man in a Hawaiian shirt. “I am Albertus!” declared the little Dayak. He had a receding hairline, a porn-star mustache, and a great, big smile that flickered between friendly and terrifying.

We bowed our heads.

“Welcome! Where are you from?” the chief cried, ushering us into his quarters—a treasure trove of woodcarvings, dusty artifacts, and evocative tribal deities. “This is one of the oldest longhouses in Borneo,” he exclaimed. “We have over two hundred families here.”


“Sometimes Dayaks make tattoos that have magic, so parang cannot hurt us. My father had many tattoos. But then he died. The magic of his tattoos still lives inside me though.”


“Why did you come here?”

“Wow, these carvings are incredible!” I smiled, picking up a grimacing idol. “Did you do these?”

“I made that one with adat ritual. It has magic.”

I admired the detailing. It looked like it belonged in a museum. “How much?”

“It has magic. Too expensive.”

“How much.”

“500,000 rupiah,” he winced—$16.

I flung him some bills and he exploded with excitement.

“Wow! You are my friend!” he cried. “Is that parang?”


He pointed at my blade. “Give it to me,” he stammered.

I eyed the man cautiously. While he seemed charming (especially for a genocidal chief of headhunters), I still couldn’t shake the fact that he was a genocidal chief of headhunters.

I passed him the machete.

The blade flashed out. Albertus flicked the sword in the air, ran his finger along the edge, and then examined the plain wooden scabbard. “No design,” he said.

“Can you make carvings on that?” I pleaded.

“What do you want?”

“Something with more magic! I want magic!”

“You cannot have. Is not okay.”

“Well then what about a demon or something.”

“Mm,” he nodded. “Okay. You must stay the night!” he announced. The blade clacked back in the sheath and Albertus stalked out of the room.

I turned to Saiful, “What a nice guy.”

He wobbled his head, “Probably not.”

“You think he’s dangerous?

He shrugged. “Dayak culture is complicated… We should try to stay on his good side. Be careful.”


As the sun sank over the jungle, beds were laid out on the chief’s living room floor. A bag of chisels appeared, and as intricate tribal designs began twirling across my parang, the master craftsman explained the rules of adat and the importance of Dayak hospitality.

Soon the tribespeople returned from the rice paddies, along with the chief’s two sons, and a special feast was prepared.

“Dayak food,” smiled Albertus’ wife, porting out a pageant of bowls—spicy fish sambal, chicken and potato curry, crispy fried tofu, stir-fried ferns, a bowl of dead birds, a plate of snails, and a dozen other unidentifiable yet delicious jungle treats.

Despite our protests, the family refused to start eating until Saiful and I had polished our plates. They insisted this was non-negotiable. This was adat.

“This is incredible,” I cried, picking apart a charred tangle of limbs with eyes. “Is it frog?”

“No,” Albertus smiled. “That is loud bird. Very special. You are guests.”

Food writer Anthony Bourdain once wrote that the most honest window into a culture is through its cuisine, but this is a poetic lie.

There’s a much better inroad.

Paul shimmied up a palm tree in the pale moonlight, clenching an empty bucket with his teeth. After much cursing, he reappeared with a frothy, yellowish liquid that reeked of rubbing alcohol and sadness. This nectar was then paraded down the longhouse to Paul’s friend’s apartment, where the noise of drunk Dayaks hit us like a foghorn.
“HELLO!” they roared, sitting with cups on a reed mat. A frazzled-looking woman stood in the corner, angrily frying rice cakes.

“Sit,” Paul instructed, as a dozen hands shot in my face.

“I’m Steve,” I smiled.

“Steep. Steep,” they attempted.

“Welcome to my home!” cried a guy my age. “I am Thomas!”

“I am from Brazil!” screamed a tattooed man. “I am Mr. Bean!” he alleged, and the Dayaks all fell over laughing.

Saiful stared in horror.

“DRINK!” shouted Thomas, thrusting palm wine in our hands. “You love tuak!!

“No!” Saiful recoiled.

“Cheers!” I cried, slamming back my cup.

Instantly my face crumpled. I guess I was expecting something delightfully tropical, because, well, they got it out of a palm tree.

“BWAAAAAHHHH!” I moaned.

The Dayaks cheered.

It was like drinking the anal discharge of a coconut.

“I am from Bangladesh!” roared Mr. Bean. “I am Islam!”

The Dayaks fell over in hysterics again. “Islam! Islam!” they laughed, slapping their knees. “He is crazy man!”

The woman in the corner turned and belted out a scream, prompting the men to laugh harder.

“That is my ex-wife!” shouted Thomas, handing me another cup. “DRINK!”

“BWAAAAAH!” I complied.
“You have very big nose!” someone exclaimed. “Very good, big nose!”
The Dayaks all nodded, muttering in admiration.

“Does it rain every day in America?”

“How do you like Kalimantan?”

“You are our brother!”



“I am Mr. Bean! I drive taxi to Australia! I not speak any English!”


As tuak flowed, the conversation withered deeper into absurdity. Everyone grew louder and more unintelligible, except for Saiful who remained sober, and Paul who turned out to be a morose, Hemingway drunk.
“People think that I am bad people!” he moaned to no one in particular. “But I am not bad people!” He turned to me. “Steep,” he whispered. “Do you think I am bad people?”

“Why would you say that?”

He stared pleadingly.

Perhaps they knew why I was here.

“Uh…” I mumbled.

None of the Dayaks I’d met seemed capable of decapitating migrants—with the possible exception of Thomas’ ex-wife. They didn’t seem like natural born killers. If anything, they seemed gentle and charismatic.

There was something naggingly familiar about adat and the emphasis on hospitality and vengeance. It was nearly symmetrical to the Pashtunwali code of Pakistan and Afghanistan—a place where I was feted with similar kindness. Perhaps in such remote and unforgiving terrains, where the reach of central governance crumbles into tribalism, these ancient laws afford us a glimpse into our raw and often violent human nature.

Or perhaps Paul was just a bad people.



At around 5AM I was awoken by a woman trying to feed me rice out of a crumpled leaf. I had passed out on the longhouse floor. The woman turned out to be the neighbor, who had taken the liberty of preparing me sticky rice for breakfast.

Before saying goodbye, I found Albertus in his quarters. He was sitting beneath a window, sanding my parang, which was now adorned in beautiful, curling motifs.

“Every carving has story and meaning,” Albertus muttered, handing me the sword. “The story of this design is about safety and bravery. If you can stay for one week, I will make you better parang to scare your enemy.
“I think this will do nicely,” I smiled, tying it to my waist. “Thank you. How much for this?”
He shook his head, “Whatever you want.”

I fumbled with my wallet. “This is also for the lodging,” I said. “And for the food… And for the tuak…” I pulled out a twenty.
Albertus exploded with excitement. “You are my brother,” he beamed, touching his heart and bowing.

Paul and Thomas walked Saiful and I down to our motorcycle, where we shook hands and bid sad farewells.
“WAIT! WAIT!” came a cry.

Albertus barreled down the stairs, grinning with his hands behind his back. “Wait! For you! A special gift.”

“You don’t have to—“

Albertus held out two new carvings.

My jaw fell as my stomach turned in fear.

“We must go now,” stammered Saiful.

“Wow,” my voice cracked as Albertus placed it in my hands. “What… What’s the meaning behind this carving?”

A devious smile flitted across the chief’s face. “It is too, too long story,” he said. “You please come back again. I tell you next time, brother.”

Before I could manage another word, the chief threw us hugs, waved one last time, and disappeared into Saham Longhouse.

As our motorcycle purred to life, I stared down at a wooden head. Its lifeless eyes gazed back at me, its face bent in a demonic grin, its lips curled back revealing curved, hidden fangs.

Perhaps Paul was a bad people.



Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For a tribal adventure from Pakistan, hop into cars with Pashtun strangers in, “Kidnapped in Alipur

To learn more about the tribal code of the Pashtuns, immerse yourself in “The Way of The Pashtunwali”

Or check out the Giraffe-Necked Women of the Paduang tribe in Burma’s “Human Zoo

Getting a Deadly Illness & Other Buttfuckery Tue, 14 Jan 2014 15:15:22 +0000


Our father, who art in heaven,
Stay there.
And we shall stay here on earth,
Which is sometimes so pretty.”
-Jacques Prévert


Until recently I was scheduled to die in 2074, sometime in early March shortly after my birthday. I’d be turning 86 that year, an appalling age—the last, pathetic interlude between endearing senility and mumbling, diaper-clad necrosis. To celebrate this milestone, I planned to start smoking crack cocaine with suicidal abandon. At my birthday party I also planned to shoot up black tar heroin, and as my loved ones watched and cheered me on, I would shove a whole sheet of acid into my mouth with my shaking, wrinkled fingers. If I was going to die, I’d rather do it chasing invisible elves into traffic than shitting in a colostomy bag in a nursing home. I wanted even my final moments on earth to be vibrant and full of adventure. I wanted to sink my teeth through the pith of life and gorge on its sweet, succulent flesh until I choked to death on the pit and my face turned purple.

But in order to do that, I’d first need to survive my twenties.

The virus hit me like a missile. On the morning of November 21st, 2013, in a dirty hotel room in Penang, Malaysia, I sprang awake in a pool of sweat, violent chills shooting down my spine. My head felt like it was being split open with a hatchet. For several hours I lay there in my mosquito net, writhing under a rickety ceiling fan, slipping in and out of white-hot dreams.

“You have Dengue Fever,” the hotel receptionist told me, before referring me to the local doctor.

“You have Influenza,” the local doctor told me, before loading me up on Malaysian horse tranquilizers for my drool-faced flight back to New York.

“You have, um,” Dr. Lopez scratched his head, “…something… exotic…” Which in medical terminology means that Dr. Lopez had no idea what we were dealing with. By the time I reached his office, I’d developed a persistent dry cough and I could barely move my legs.

My first Friday back in America was spent at the hospital, enjoying an endless parade of medical exams. The stool culture test was the silliest. The blood parasite smear was the un-silliest, as my nurse drew enough blood to save the Philippines. At one point, Dr. Lopez instructed me to poop in a plastic top hat, before informing me that I might have Chicken Ganya.

“Is that like Indian food?”


While Chicken Ganya sounded delicious, Dr. Lopez ruled it out with the return of my blood work.

“It doesn’t look good,” he droned.

I had Thrombocytopenia (low blood platelets) and Leukopenia (low white blood cells)—two possibly fatal warning signs of Leukemia, Lupus, HIV, or AIDS.

While I hadn’t engaged in any unprotected sex or lavish heroin orgies, everything seemed to point to HIV—I had a fever, a headache, sore muscles, a dry cough, a low white blood cell count, a low platelet count, and I could barely walk.

Equally terrifying was the Thrombocytopenia, which WebMD taught me prevents the coagulation of blood. It’s a similar condition to Hemophilia: if I cut myself, the bleeding doesn’t stop and I could die.

“We’re going to run more tests,” said the impassive doctor. “I wouldn’t be too concerned.”

“Of course not,” I said, staring around his office in horror. Every pen and pointed object was a dagger. Every creased People Magazine was a death sentence by paper cuts.

Deadly Illness-2

That night I tried to preoccupy myself by helping my mother decorate the house for the holidays. We drank beer and laughed, but paranoia consumed my thoughts.

What if I died this year?

Had I lived a full life?

What if I bit my lip and bled out over the gingerbread men?

“Call and cancel your flight back to Singapore,” urged my mother.

“Nah. I’m fine to travel.”

She frowned. “Is there any part of you that wants to be home with your family? Your friends miss you too.” She put down a box of nutcrackers and shook her head. “I don’t want to say this, but if you’re really this ill, they’ll probably make you stay for treatment. You might not be traveling again.”

All people react differently when they realize they have a terminal illness. Some withdraw into denial, as if the truth were too unfathomable to comprehend. Others are suffocated with dread, as if the world were closing in around them like a noose.

For me, it wasn’t like this at all. There was not a feeling of despondency, but of urgency. It was like in Mario, when you eat a gold star and then suddenly you have fifteen seconds to achieve as much as you can before your happy music goes dead. Those fifteen seconds are superlife.

I watched my entire, short existence unfurl before my eyes. I could see the horrible finish line, but I didn’t want to hide in bed—I wanted to rampage into mushrooms with reckless disregard. I had nothing to fear but wasting precious time. I wanted to cram those fifteen seconds with a whole lifetime’s worth of adventures and experiences. I wanted to travel to Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and the Congo, write a best-selling autobiography about a dying man who faces his own mortality by visiting the most dangerous corners of the globe and showing that humanity isn’t as evil as Fox News makes it out to be—that people are all fundamentally good, whether they live in Boston or Benin or Baghdad. I’d probably win a Nobel Prize. I’d do talk shows; Oprah would weep on my shoulder.

But I only had fifteen seconds to do it.

I started packing my backpack that night.

Deadly Illness-3

That same evening, my Uncle Jim passed away. His body was hastily cremated and three days later we held a service for him in a grim, echoing church that reeked of frankincense and tile cleaner. I’ve never identified as religious, and until that point the only thing I’d learned from church is that eye-rolls can be a unit of measurement.

His daughter was the first to speak. Shifting her weight at the podium, she blandly recalled her father’s interest in golf and watching sports. She then stepped down and the microphone was handed to a man I hadn’t met, who gave a vague diatribe that related little to Uncle Jim, and had more to do with selling faith in Jesus Christ.

Only a couple times in the service was Uncle Jim’s compassion or character ever mentioned and the whole event felt oddly impersonal—perhaps because the room was nearly empty; almost nobody showed up.

“He was a good brother,” my grandfather told me, before we had our way with the cheese and cookies table.

I tried to imagine how many people would attend my funeral. I had countless friends in countless countries, but I’d been horrible at keeping in touch. I hadn’t lived in one place for more than seven months since I graduated high school. I’d never had a meaningful relationship. Mine was the life of a drifter. Mine was a life of impermanence—of one-night stands and five-minute friendships, of moving from city to city, from adventure to adventure, cutting personal ties as casually as I might cut my hair. I’d seen the world. I’d followed my dreams. I’d “lived life to the fullest,” yet oddly I didn’t feel fulfilled. In fact, sitting in the empty funeral chapel, all I felt was isolated.

Travel is an opiate, an unbeatable high. It amplifies the experience of living—but it doesn’t really define it. It is merely icing without cake. And at the end of the road, it’s not the most important thing. Nor is golf. Nor is watching sports. Nor is Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, or Lord Ganesh.

Friends, family, love—people are important. Relationships are important.

Deadly Illness-4

I could hear my mother shouting as she barreled down the stairs, clutching a letter. She stopped when she saw me, her eyes wide.

“Your results came in,” she said breathlessly. “I’ve got bad news.”

I closed my eyes.

“You have Dengue Fever.”


“You have Dengue Fever”, she said—a painful tropical virus with no cure and a 10% fatality rate.

I had Dengue Fever. I was overjoyed. I wanted to write it with jet trails over a sunny beach. I wanted to sing it from a glorious mountaintop:


The finish line suddenly receded into the distance. The universe had given me a Mulligan.

A few days later I skipped my flight back to Singapore; I decided to stay and spend the holidays with my family and friends. I drank wine and eggnog with my brothers till sunrise. I built a bonfire on a winter beach with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I passed out in my chair at a number of bars and restaurants because, well, I guess I had Dengue Fever. I also spent time submitting some of my work to Vice, Esquire, and National Geographic, and I’m happy to announce that I’ve been working on a TV project.

On New Years Eve I flew back to Asia, and as I watched Chinese rockets whizzing and whistling through the Taipei night sky, I made a resolution:

In 2014, I will finally hang up my backpack. In 2014, for the first time in my life, I will attempt to settle down like a real person, to find a place to call home, to stop spraying Axe into my backpack and calling that laundry. I want to find something that feels permanent.

At least for a couple years.

Or for as long as I can tolerate.

Perhaps I’ll get Leukemia next year. Perhaps you will. Perhaps we’ll all get our own cheese and cookie table someday, and perhaps we won’t expect it when it arrives. Until that happens, all we can do is try to live more urgently. To love more deeply. To build more bonfires. To reach out to the people around you, shake them by the shoulders, and yell, “Let’s drink wine and eggnog till sunrise.”

I want my funeral to have a bouncer. I want there to be Indian food instead of cookies. I want all of my friends and family to be there, standing around eating samosas and saying, “I’m sure gonna miss that old geezer Steve; he was a real shot of life. Right up until he smoked bath salts and punched an elephant.”

“But I thought he died choking on the pit of life?”

“Oh right, he did. I heard he turned purple.”

“Wow, good for him.”

“Yeah… Good for him.”


Leshan Buddha-1

Deadly Illness-6


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

To hear why I chose a life on the road in the first place, check out the genesis tale of Backpackology, “Stepping off the Edge”

If I ever have to write a commencement speech regarding life philosophy, it would probably sound something like this: “To Go the Other Way”

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Photo Series: “Asia in Color” Wed, 20 Nov 2013 16:49:18 +0000

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The monsoon arrives over the Punjab, India.

Bamboo grove, Japan.

Rice hats, Vietnam.

Golden domes of a mosque, Pakistan.

Apsara dancers, Cambodia.

Violet mist and Buddhist monks. Mandalay, Burma.

Sichuan Opera, China

Yaks near Mt. Everest, Nepal.

Emerald rice paddies, Laos.

Orange torii gates and women in kimonos, Japan.

Red sunset over ruins. Sukhothai, Thailand.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more pretty photos, check out my Photo Travelogue from the Joshi Festival of the Black Kalash Tribe in Pakistan: “The Joshi Festival

Or take a colorful glimpse into Pakistan with the photo collection “Chalo Pakistan

Or check out the rest of Asia by clicking the “Photo Travelogue” button at the top of this page.

Tomb Raider 3: Steve Falls In Quicksand Near The Rat Temple And Is Sad Fri, 08 Nov 2013 15:15:23 +0000

Dusk fell over Cambodia’s Northwest Frontier as the police chief paced across his wooden hut, barking in Khmer at my translator.

“The chief says the Rat Temple is cursed,” Vira explained. “He says you are going to steal treasure from the temple. You will get sick and die.”

I shifted uneasily. “Ha Ha. I’m not looking for treasure! I… I just want to rent a metal detector…”

The police chief shouted.

“He says Prasat Dop is very dangerous. The temple is protected by a midget.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“The midget uses magic to fly around the temple at night. You will think he is the moon.”

“What? I just want a metal detector!” I cried. “Why do I need police permission for that?”

“He says the midget is very strong. The midget is on fire.“

“Why did you tell him I’m going to Prasat Dop!”

“He says it is hidden in the jungle and very dangerous to reach. Only some villagers know the way, but nobody goes; not even scientists. He says you are a treasure hunter.”


“He says you are a liar-man.”

When I was a fat, little eight year old, I used to spend hours digging glass bottles out of my grandmother’s backyard. They were garbage, but my grandmother lied and told me they were priceless antiques from hundreds of years ago. I told my grandmother that when I grew up, I was going to be an archaeologist—a decision founded upon the inaccuracies of Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, and Legends of the Hidden Temple. The career I pictured involved me wearing a cool hat, battling temple guards, and hitting antiques with a whip. I would get to solve ancient riddles and watch Alfred Molina step on a booby trap.

For this reason I’ve always been drawn to Cambodia, seduced by its exotic, world-class temples and the mighty Angkor Wat. When I finally visited Cambodia, however, my childhood expectations met a violent, cacophonous end: Instead of fighting temple guards, I was fighting souvenir touts. Instead of watching Alfred Molina getting pin-cushioned with arrows, I was watching six thousand Chinese women making peace signs in front of garbage cans. Instead of finding romance and adventure, I found sweaty fanny packs lashed around muffin tops. Christmas was canceled forever.

“Go upcountry!” Sonith yelled, tipping back his beer. “Everybody comes to Angkor because that’s all they know. It’s the capital of the Khmer Empire, the largest pre-industrial city in the world—you can see a million temples and be back at the hotel in time for lunch. But for what you’re looking for, you have to go north.”

Sonith was a young archaeology graduate from Phnom Penh, working on temple restoration in Beng Mealea. I bought him a beer in exchange for his wisdom. “The jungles of the Northwest Frontier are filled with temples waiting to be explored. Thousands of them. They’re just as beautiful as the ones here in Angkor, but you’ll feel like the first person to set foot inside in centuries.”

“Why doesn’t anyone visit them?”

“Because they’re absolutely covered in landmines.”

“You mean like booby traps?!

“No, I mean like landmines. Hundreds of thousands of landmines. The Khmer Rouge left them after the civil war. You need a metal detector.”

After traveling deep into the Northwest Frontier, I caught rumors of a lost ‘Rat Temple’ hidden in the jungle, 30km outside Sra Em village. Its name was Prasat Dop and local farmers described it as beautiful, mysterious, and untouched by time. It would have been perfect, except the grounds were full of unexcavated treasure, leading the police to believe that I was a gem smuggler… and in the Northwest treasure trove of Cambodia, you need a police permit to operate a metal detector.

The police chief barked at me.

“No metal detector for you,” Vira apologized.

“What if I step on a landmine and get killed!”

“The chief says you wont get killed. You are very tall. It will only blow off foot.”

“Is that a joke?”

The police chief stared at me.

“Alright, fine!” I folded my arms. Laura Croft never needed a metal detector; “I’ll just manage without one then.”

Vira’s motorbike screamed through the jungle.

“ADVENTURE!” he cried, splashing through muddy puddles and slamming into potholes with reckless zest. “Woohoo!”

We zipped down the trail, past bomb craters and quaint, isolated farms, before we screeched to a stop in front of a silky patch of mud.

“Quicksand,” said Vira.

“Gun it! Gun it!” I cheered.


“It’s okay! Go!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah!” I cheered. “Adventure!”

“ADVENTURE!” he bellowed, slamming the accelerator.


In retrospect, I didn’t actually realize that quicksand was a real thing. It just seemed too fantastical and cinematic a concept…

Until it swallowed Vira’s motorbike.

“Nooo!” Vira wailed as we leapt off the bike. When I looked back, the quicksand was nearly up to the seat.

I fumbled for my camera.


After several frantic minutes we somehow managed to pull the bike to safety. Vira then wiped off the seat, clenched his fists, and stomped off into the bush to curse at a tree.

Meanwhile I frolicked in the quicksand. It was fascinating. With every movement—every displacement of silt—a vacuum forms around your feet and you sink deeper.

“Awesome!” I cried.

After I discovered that you could only sink to knee-level before the phenomenon stopped, the novelty wore off and I realized my sneakers were ruined.

“Let’s go!” shouted Vira.

I tried to jump out of the quicksand, but slipped.


I landed on my back, plastering my clothes in mud. “I’m alright!” I scrambled to get to my feet.

There was a loud rip as my pants tore wide open, exposing the front of my underpants for all of Cambodia.

I could tell Vira was angry because he stopped speaking to me in English.

His happy cheering ceased and the road deteriorated into a slippery river of mud. Occasionally we’d reach impassable sections and I’d hop off the bike (splitting in my pants wider each time) and wade through the mud, while Vira navigated around the roadblock, grunting and cursing through the foliage.

After the seventh repeat of this episode, Vira lost a battle with a tree and tumbled out of the bush, clutching his head. “No more adventure!” he moaned. “We go back please?”

“But the Rat Temple’s so close!” I cried. “You can go back. I’ll hitch a ride with someone on a tractor.”

“Okay!” Vira smiled and turned his bike around. “I’m going back to town to drink beer. Call me when you’re finished.”

He then waved and vanished in whirl of dust, leaving me alone in the jungle.

“Prasat Dop! Prasat Dop!” shouted the woman, pointing down a trail that vanished into the bush. “Three kilometer.”

I hopped off the tractor, thanked the farmers, and set off down the trail for Prasat Dop.

After thirty minutes of walking the trail vanished beneath my feet and I began tromping through painful stinging vines, which caused my arms and exposed groin to puff up with rash-y welts. To mark my path, I started inhaling my emergency bag of candy bars and using the wrappers to forge a trail-of-breadcrumbs.

Tomb Raiding wasn’t as glamorous as I’d expected. It mostly involved wandering through the jungle, swatting at thorny vines and squealing through cobwebs. While people in the movies always seemed to know exactly where The-Lost-Hidden-Temple was located, I had no idea where I was going.  I had no Token Minority sidekick or talking Olmec head to give me clues. There was no path. The only sign I found was lying in the dirt, emblazoned with a foreboding orange skull and text. It was written in Khmer, but I recognized this sign and knew exactly what it said.


My stomach turned. I looked around for broken branches or the safety of footprints. Movies had warned me that finding The-Lost-Hidden-Temple is always a massive, dangerous pain in the ass—that’s what made it an adventure.

But this was just impossible. This was like The Shrine of the Silver Monkey—if Nickelodeon started blowing off the children’s limbs.

I advanced a few nervous yards before I saw it, poking out of the weeds like a Staples Easy Button of death.

It was a landmine.

A real landmine.

The Shrine of the Silver Monkey was instantly forgotten and the game became “Get Out of The Minefield With All Your Limbs.”

But first I had to spend ten minutes clearing the weeds away so I could take a picture, of course.

My trail of candy wrappers had magically disappeared, so I started aimlessly pouting through the jungle. After thirty minutes I stumbled upon a footpath, which led me back to where the tractor dropped me off.

I stood there for a long moment wincing in the sun, wallowing in the shame of defeat. I couldn’t imagine Indiana Jones pussing out over a minefield. He probably would have just forced little Wan Li to walk through it first, before tracing the boy’s footsteps. Which gave me an idea…

I sat down in the middle of the path until an ox-cart creaked into view, carrying a father and two sons.

Their jaws fell as they spied the white man sitting in the middle of the road, covered in mud, plagued with welts, and wearing crotchless safari pants. They slowed to a stop.

“Prasat Dop?” I smiled.

The father pointed down the overgrown trail.

I couldn’t force them to navigate the minefield for me like little Wan Li. But I could do the next best thing…

I pulled out three dollars.

Their eyes sparkled.

“Will you please take me?” I gestured to them, then me, then the ox-cart, and then the trail.

“No, no,” the father shook his head, pointing to their farming tools.

I pulled out five dollars.

The father stared.

Dark clouds rolled overheard as the father marched us into the minefield, excitedly chattering to me in Khmer. I smiled back at him, nervously waiting for the BANG!

In less than ten minutes, we arrived at a brick staircase ascending a mound.

“Prasat Dop! Prasat Dop!” the boys pointed up the steps.

I handed them the five dollars and they scrutinized the bill, before cheering in Khmer. “Thank you! Thank you! Goodbye!”

“Wait! I need to get back!” I cried, as they vanished through the trees.

Rain started to fall as I climbed the steps to the bank of a large pond. At the center of the pond was a small island. At the center of the island a stone tower rose up out of the greenery, carved with massive, evocative faces.

It was the Rat Temple.

Goose bumps ran down my arm. This wasn’t a pond. I was standing before an ancient moat.

The skies opened up and monsoon rains pounded my umbrella. I stared down the land bridge to the island—a nightmarish orgy of stinging vines. If I could push through the vines, then all my Tomb Raider fantasies would come true. I could ride out the storm solving puzzles, exploring secret passages, and climbing giant statues. I could find The Golden Idol. I could reveal the Secret of Olmec.

I took a deep breath, lowered my umbrella like a shield, and charged into the gauntlet.

This was the worst idea.

Try to imagine dousing yourself in Kool-Aid and then drop-kicking a bee hive. This was that.

The massive stone door appeared before me as I shrieked out of the bush, waving my umbrella victoriously. I scurried inside.

The Secret of Olmec turned out to be a nondescript, bat shit-scented stone box. Rain poured down on me through the shattered roof. There were no puzzles, secret passages, or statues. No flaming aerial midgets or half-buried treasure. Only mosquitoes, disappointment, and nothing.

Prasat Dop was an empty silo with faces on it. It was a total piece of shit.

I couldn’t even sit down because the floor was under an inch of water, so I huddled beneath my umbrella in a sad corner and waited for the storm to pass, cursing Hollywood for their lies.

And I cursed.

And I cursed.

And I cursed.

After an hour or two I got bored, walked out the door, and surrendered to the monsoon, setting off on the long, hot, wet, stinging, painful, explosive, muddy, dangerous, thirty-kilometer trek back to Sra Em.


A few days later I got stranded in a remote village named Banteay Chhmar, where I stayed with a family of rice farmers. The family told me about a nearby temple in the jungle that was beautiful, mysterious, and untouched by time.


“But you must!” they insisted.

The next morning they drew me a map on a napkin. After an uneventful ten-minute walk from their hut, I crossed over a moat and found myself in a spectacular Hollywood jungle temple of lore. My jaw fell as I stared up at a dozen soaring spires, strangled with magnificent vines and bursting through the forest canopy. Crumbling sandstone faces peered down from them, surveying the sea of stone slabs, broken reliefs, and collapsing tombs.

As the sun climbed, I explored secret passageways, climbed giant statues, and uncovered breathtaking stone reliefs. I was Indiana Jones. I had found The-Lost-Hidden-Temple—a secret known by only a handful of villagers… and me.

I scaled up the wall of a spire and perched on a high ledge, drinking in the view.

A plump Japanese tourist appeared. “Herro!” he waved. He was wearing a fanny pack.

I blinked. “How did you get here?” I stammered.

“Oohhh,” he smiled. “It’s in Japanese guidebook.”

“No it’s not!” I shouted.

The man squinted at me and waddled off into the rubble.

The temple was so vast, I never saw him again. And after an hour of sitting on my lofty perch, gazing out across the silent, elegant ruins, I managed to convince myself that he was never there in the first place.

This was my temple. This was my lost hidden secret. I was Indiana Jones.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more deadly, minefield-related shenanigans, watch me torture my intern in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

Or push deeper into the jungle by meeting Cambodia’s Mowgli in “The Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri

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The Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri Tue, 29 Oct 2013 15:18:01 +0000

Cambodia’s ‘Wild East’ is many things; it’s the leafy thwack of a machete over thundering waterfalls; it’s the pounding of tribal drums as a shaman slits the throat of a buffalo; it’s the scent of frangipani and the swish of a tiger’s tail; it’s the seduction of Apocalypse Now adventure floating in the steamy jungle heat. Some people come here to find a forgotten way of life governed by animism, spirits, and magic. Others come to trek the jungles in search of rare primates and exotic birds.

I came here to find a little girl.

On a cool October morning in 1988, eight year-old Pnieng Rochum and her younger cousin vanished near the remote village of O’Yadao in Rattanakiri province. While small footprints were discovered at a nearby stream, no investigation was made. The parents blamed the disappearance on jungle spirits and focused their energy on sacrificing buffalo.

Nineteen years later, a “half-woman, half-animal” stumbled out of the dense jungle near the village of Ten. She was naked, covered in dirt, and walking with an ape-like stoop. The villagers described terrifying, bloodshot red eyes, skeletal arms, and extended fingernails, which she hungrily used to pick rice out of the dirt.

When the story reached O’Yadao, Pnieng’s parents rejoiced—apparently this description matched their little girl.

“It was the happiest moment of my life,” recalled Pnieng’s mother, Rochom Choy. “I looked into her eyes and knew this was my long lost daughter.” Pnieng’s parents were even able to identify a scar on her arm, where her sister had accidentally cut her as a child.

On January 14, 2007, Pnieng and her family were reunited and the world media descended like bees, hungry to uncover a tale of hope, perseverance, and inspiring triumph.

Unfortunately such heartwarming tales don’t exist in Cambodia, and every time Pnieng’s parents tried to touch the girl, she’d begin screaming like a mental patient, ripping off her clothes, and fleeing towards the jungle. This led some journalists to suggest that Pnieng was balls-out fucking crazy.

“Deeply traumatized,” clarified one psychologist, “She is still coping from unknown events that unfolded in the jungle.”

As new developments emerged, the story grew stranger.

An early witness reported that when Pnieng was discovered, she was with a naked man holding a sword. Pnieng’s parents insisted the man was a jungle spirit. More likely, argued a British journalist, Pnieng had been kidnapped by a crazy naked guy in the woods. There were deep scars around her wrists and ankles that suggested she had been tied up. Perhaps her secret past was less like The Jungle Book and more like Deliverance.

The truth remained a mystery: Pnieng didn’t speak, nor would she make eye contact. She almost seemed catatonic, only muttering soft whimpers and animal squeaks.

Her parents feared that the jungle spirit was trying to reclaim her.

And then one morning, Pnieng disappeared again.

This is where the story gets weird.

Pnieng returned nine days later… But as a changed woman. She was now smiling, singing songs, and acknowledging visitors. One psychologist reported that she “uttered something that sounded like words,” in response to a game involving toy animals. In an even stranger development, she seemed to understand a few words of Vietnamese and Jarai, suggesting she’d spent time across the border.

Pnieng was starting to recover, but her doctors assessed it was too early for answers. Only in time would Pnieng Rochum reveal her mysterious past.

A few days later, Lindsay Lohan exposed her crotch at a nightclub and the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri was forgotten by the world. The journalists flew home and many mysteries were left unsolved. How did Pnieng survive for nineteen years in the jungle? Why wasn’t she killed by tigers, snakes, or malaria? Did the Jungle Man really exist? What is it like to see an eight year-old little girl slaughter a monkey with her bare fists? What happened to Pnieng’s missing cousin? What does monkey taste like? How did she end up in Vietnam? Can people really swing on vines? Why does the media think anyone cares about Lindsey Lohan?

My ramshackle bus rumbled out of Phnom Penh and into the verdant countryside, kicking up clouds of red dust on the rugged road to Rattanakiri. I was going to find answers. I was going to connect the dots of The Jungle Girl’s secret past, to finally bring closure to one of the greatest Wild Child cases ever reported. I was going to try to find Pnieng Rochum.

“Do you have her cell phone number?”

“I don’t think she has a cell phone,” I muttered. I tore a page out of my notebook and handed it to my fixer. “Here’s her name and the name of her parents. That’s all I’ve got.”

“Good,” Mr. Smiley nodded, “That’s all I’ll need to find her.”

To facilitate my research and interviews, Mr. Smiley booked me a translator for three days.

My translator’s name was Ponleak and he was a good-humored, friendly and highly likeable Khmer guy. He was twenty-four and his hobbies included yelling, abruptly laughing at nothing, and asking me to inspect a photo of his newborn baby every thirty minutes. He would have made the perfect translator, except I had to ride on the back of his motorbike all day and he smelled like poo. Also, he didn’t speak English. At least not with any proficiency.

She lived in the jungle for nineteen years,” I slowly explained for the fiftieth time.


“She was in the jungle. She lived in the jungle. Trees. Trees! For nineteen years!


“One-nine. Nineteen.”

“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak grinned.

I could tell when Ponleak didn’t understand me, because his voice would shoot up an octave and he’d go: “OOOH! Yes, yes!”

My hunt for answers began near Ten village, where Ponleak guided me into the jungle. In the weeks preceding Pnieng’s capture, several villagers reported food going missing, suggesting she was living here for some time.

It wasn’t particularly cozy.

The dense foliage was suffocating. It felt like walking through a broken carwash. I found no gamboling elephants or happy butterflies like I imagined, but instead an angry gauntlet of leeches and spiders. To survive these conditions for even a month seemed inconceivable. To survive it for nineteen years, Pnieng must have been a Jedi. She must have been strong, cunning, and vicious, a pigtailed, eight year-old She-Rambo.

An evocative, tribal rooftop soared out of the greenery. We emerged at a clearing, into a scene from Heart of Darkness. Standing before us were several deserted tribal structures adorned in blood-red patterns, buffalo horns, and the sculls of animal sacrifices. Stern totems stood sentinel, depicting beasts, soldiers, and one pregnant woman with her hands bound and throat cut. At her feet were strewn broken pots, woven baskets, dirty rice bowls, and beer cans.

If I were a crazy, sword-wielding naked man in the woods, I imagined this would be my real estate. “The jungle spirit!” I celebrated.

“No. Chunchiette,” Ponleak corrected; it was a graveyard of the Jarai tribe; these were animist spirit-houses where the dead received offerings.

I asked Ponleak to inquire with the local villagers as to whether they’d seen any naked militant lunatics about.

They had not.

Perhaps there wasn’t a “Jungle Man,” but one detail was haunting me: when Pnieng emerged from the jungle, her hair wasn’t long and wild, but short and straight.

Who helped cut her hair? Who was she with in the jungle?

I awoke early the next morning to a phone call.

“I can’t find her,” muttered Mr. Smiley. “I called many friends.”

“Did you check in O’Yadao?”


I grumbled.

“Her family is Pnong minority!” he cried. “Pnong move around a lot. All the time.”

“Well then I’ll go to O’Yadao and ask.”

“O’Yadao is a very big, big district!” Mr. Smiley scoffed. “So many people. What are you going to do? Walk around with her picture asking people if they’ve seen her?”

“No. I don’t have a picture.”


I sat up in bed. “The girl walks around like a baboon and makes creepy noises. It can’t be that difficult.”

Ponleak parked the motorbike outside a noodle shack in O’Yadao.

“O’Yadao!” he announced, before screaming at the noodle-lady in Khmer.

The noodle-lady replied something and pointed to a stilted hut three doors away.

“The girl lives there.”


Pnieng’s sister ushered us into the hut’s main room—a modest space furnished with reed mats and a rickety table, on which an ancient television blasted cartoons.

Ponleak rapped against the timber walls, nodding with envy. “Very, very nice house.”

Next to the television, Pnieng sat on the floor, idly examining her fingers. She was now thirty-three.

Upon noticing me she smiled and gave a slight nod.

“Hello,” I waved. “Are you Pnieng?”

She looked at me for a long moment, before returning to the intrigue of her fingers.

We were informed that she was tired; she’d spent the entire afternoon ripping out her own hair.

Oh yeah, Pnieng was bald.

A woman appeared out of the kitchen, carrying metal bowls and hollering like an Italian mother. She placed the food on the floor in front of Pnieng—a bowl of flaccid, boiled kale and a mound of rice. She pointed to the dishes and bellowed.

Pnieng inspected her fingers.

The mother hollered again, taking Pnieng’s chin and guiding her head in the direction of the food.

Pnieng immediately descended on her meal, picking up fistfuls of rice and leaves, stuffing her face.

The mother sat on the floor across from us. She looked exhausted. Ponleak provided introductions and Pnieng’s mother, Choy, agreed to field my questions.

I opened my notebook. “Can you ask her what they’ve uncovered about Pnieng’s history in the past six years?”

Ponleak stared at me. “Why do you care?”

“What?… I don’t know! Because it’s interesting.”

Ponleak cocked his head.

I huffed. “Because Wild Child stories are important. They afford us a glimpse into our own primal, uncorrupted humanity. They reveal to us–”

“OOOH! Yes, yes!” Ponleak nodded, before yelling something at Choy.

Choy nodded and explained.

“Wow!” Ponleak turned to me. “She says girl was in jungle very, very long time!”

I put down my pen and took a deep breath. “Can you ask her how does she think her daughter survived in the jungle for so long?”

Ponleak shouted at the woman.

Choy launched into an epic story.

“Oh, wow!” cried Ponleak.

Her voice grew louder and she started gesticulating.

When she finally finished, Ponleak turned to me. “She doesn’t know.”

“She just talked for three minutes!”

“I don’t know how to say in English.”

I groaned loudly.

Ponleak’s face crumpled like he was about to cry. “I’m so sorry, sir!” he pressed his hands together in a sompiah. “I only speak little, little English, sir! I’m very, very sorry!”

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I gushed. “You’re doing very good. So good! Can you ask her how old Pnieng was when she disappeared?”

I knew the interview was doomed, but I already had the answers I came for. Simply looking into Pnieng’s eyes, her story was disturbingly obvious.

I’m not qualified to draw any scientific, psychological, or experiential conclusions about Pnieng’s case. Nor am I entitled to make ungrounded, possibly disparaging public statements regarding her family and personal life. It’s not my job to do so.

So I’ll just do it as a hobby.

There is no evidence to suggest that this girl is Pnieng Rochum. Instead, there is only evidence to suggest the contrary. What doesn’t  add up is the fact that this girl looked like she was in her forties.

That, and the fact that she was profoundly autistic.

This wasn’t PTSD. If everyone who suffered an unspeakably traumatic event transformed into a whimpering, finger-counting potato, then America wouldn’t have any opposition in Afghanistan.

This girl was born this way and grew up in a Jarai village. This would explain the scars on her wrists. Life is cheap in the jungles of Cambodia and children born with mental disabilities in poor minority villages aren’t given special attention or WalMart staff aprons. They get bamboo cages and rope restraints. It’s sad, but true. If Rain Man were born in the Wild East of Cambodia, he would have been chained to a post. Like several famous Wild Child cases, Pnieng was likely kept in solitary confinement, refused of any human contact and never trained in language, social skills, or upright walking. Children who aren’t properly acculturated in infancy usually never grasp these basic abilities. Instead, they behaved much like the Jungle Girl—walking with a stoop and uttering soft whimpers and squeaks.

About a month before Pnieng’s discovery, she escaped her restraints and fled into the jungle. But she couldn’t have survived long. You can’t take down a 300 lb. tapir by examining its fingers. She wasn’t a killer. To survive for any considerable length of time, she would have developed lean muscle. Instead she looked anorexic.

Another possibility is that a male family member was with Pnieng until her capture—the “Jungle Man.” The Jarai are often illegal refugees escaping religious persecution in Vietnam. Many of them live in hiding in the jungle and are keen to avoid exposure to authorities. Perhaps when the male family member saw the villagers, he abandoned the girl to save himself. This would explain the short hair, as well as why she understood Jarai and Vietnamese.

When Pnieng’s parents arrived, they hadn’t seen their daughter’s face in nineteen year. They didn’t have photographs to keep their memories fresh. Perhaps they could recall Pnieng’s face perfectly and this girl was a match—but probably not. I suspect the parents simply loved their child more than words could describe and were willing to do anything to get her back—even if it meant lying to themselves.

When the interview was finished, Choy helped up Pnieng and we followed them outside to a small wooden shed.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Choy opened the door to the empty wooden box, pushed Pnieng inside, and then locked the door behind her.

“She says the girl stays here so she not run away,” Ponleak nodded.

“Wait,” I muttered.

Choy  smiled, reopened the door, and displayed the wooden cell, shining a flashlight in Pnieng’s frowning face.

“She keeps her daughter locked in a cage?!” I blurted.

The mother closed the door, waved us goodbye, and wandered back into the warm house.

“That’s totally fucked!” I said. “That’s… I don’t even…”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Ponleak.

He stared for a minute, then suddenly leapt forward. “Oh no! She forget!” he cried and locked the door of the shed. “Okay, we go?”

“The girl is deaf,” Pnieng’s doctor said, leaning back in his chair.

My jaw dropped.

“Whether or not she’s Pnieng is another question,” he continued. “Your theory seems very likely; I think this girl was probably abused or tortured.”

When I arrived at the doctor’s office, he was reluctant to talk to me, but irritating persistence won the day.

“I don’t want further media attention,” he frowned. “It distresses her. Her parents exploited her to get money from journalists. Then when the journalists left, they started asking us for money. They wanted Psychologists Without Borders to support Pnieng, but…” the doctor shifted in his chair. “We stopped researching her two years ago. Nothing was happening. We can’t honestly say who she is. The journalists tried to give her a DNA test, but we stopped them.”

“You what?!”

“The parent’s still say it’s their daughter, but they stopped believing the words a long time ago. I think they’re starting to reject her. It’s very sad. If the test proves it’s really their daughter, then nothing changes. But if she’s not and the parents throw her out, then what happens to this girl?”

A long, black silence followed. The doctor opened a drawer and fished out a business card. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Please contact Mr. Hector, he was the primary researcher. He’s in Spain now.”

I thanked the doctor and we shook hands.

“I hope you’ve found what you’re looking for,” he offered.

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

I never contacted Mr. Hector.

I still don’t know for sure what happened to Pnieng Rochum. I think we’d all like to believe the story that this little girl survived for nineteen years in the jungle. It reassures us that the human spirit is powerful enough to tame the forces of nature, that the things we’ve loved and lost may one day be returned, that hope is never truly dead. But deep down we all know it’s only a story. And for the Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri, this story ends where it most likely began—not with swinging vines, growling tigers, and swashbuckling courage, but with a poor little girl betrayed by fate and family, whimpering and alone in a wooden cage, somewhere in the forgotten Wild East of Cambodia.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

If you’re not depressed enough already, check out “The Human Zoo” in Burma

For another (funnier) jungle misadventure in Laos, watch me torture my intern with landmines in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

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