|6 Letters from Jonathan - from Asia 2002-2003
last letters and photos added at bottom June 26 & July 1 -2003
From: jonathan friedrichs
Sent: Thursday, December 26, 2002 9:46 AM
Dear Friedrichs Family,
Here's a quick update from Thailand where I've just spent an amazing 30 days! I'll skip over Bangkok, (unless you want
to hear about car exhaust and 7/11's) and begin with Khoa Yai park (the oldest and biggest national park in the country
which is only 130 km from Bangkok) We got there way after dark so had no idea of what we'd be waking up to. But I
woke up at 6AM and the first thing I see as I look out my bungalow window is two sambar (large deer) and a group of
about a dozen macaques walking 20 feet away. Later that day we went on a hike and saw several great hornbills,
definately the most tropical bird I'd ever seen, and lots of other weird birds and bugs, including leeches which feasted on
my ankles. They release some sort of anti-coagulate to keep the blood flowing until they're bloated and content, but you
can't feel them, you only notice a blood-soaked sock. (I've learned a fair amount of Thai phrases already, including what
Jessica said was very
We spent the next 6 days in Ko Chang, and island not far from the border of Cambodia. It was a tourist trap but it was
still a very cozy and pleasant atmosphere. We did very little but meet other tourists, eat, swim in florescent blue water and
go to the bars occasionally. But on the last day we did an all day snorkelling trip. The only other time I'd snorkelled was
off Aqaba, which I thought had better coral and a bigger variety of fish, but I still saw some incredible things. Schools of
squid, parrot fish, a mantra ray and the scariest thing I've ever seen in the wild-- a shark!!! The trip took us to 3 different
spots, the last of which was supposed to be the least interesting, so most people were tired and just lay on the rocks and I
was the only one on the boat of 30 who really wanted to get his moneys' worth, so I brought my snorkelling mask and
went pretty far away to check things out. All of a sudden I
After being lazy on the beach we headed north to Chiang Mai and then further into the hills to do some trekking. We had
a group of 11 people, 6 of which turned out to be from B.C! (including my foursome). The hikes were not too difficult
so the main challenge of the trek turned out to be fighting sleep deprivation. It's quite hard to sleep in a Lahu hilltribe
village when your room turns out to be both a chicken coop and an opium den! Anyway, we managed somehow.
So tomorrow I head off to Laos for 30 days! I'm extremely excited becuase although I loved Thailand, I'm looking
forward to getting slightly off the beaten track. Towards the end of our trip through Laos my friends and I will all be
splitting up for perhaps a month or longer before meeting up again. I've still got roughly 7 or 8 more countries to get to
before my trip is over-- I'll be sure to email you again from one of them!
Hope all is well with everyone.
JONATHAN’S REPORT ON HIS TRAVELS IN LAOS (January 21, 2003)
I've been in southern Laos for the last two weeks with no internet access until now (I'm back in Vientiane) so I've got lots
to tell, but I might as well start from the very beginning. Back in late December we crossed the Mekong and entered a
country with a population of only 5.5 million (one of the lowest population densities in Asia), not one ATM to be found
anywhere (so much for conserving my US traveller's cheques), and where the highest bill has a value of less than US $2
(at one point I cashed in US $100 and for the first time in my life, and probably last, I was a millionaire!)
Starting in Huay Xai, we took a two day boat ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. There was no development
anywhere, just a mountainous forest terrain with tiny villages dotting the landscape every so often. I got the sense that it
couldn't look too different now than it did when some of the early explorers went down the river. We eventually arrived in
Luang Prabang, one of the most important cities in Laos both historically and currently, but I was surprised to see how
small it was (the population is less than 20,000). LP is a UNESCO world heritage site and rightly so with tons of old
temples still standing and in use, lots of colonial architecture in tact and mountains to one side and the river to the other. I
also got a real sense of the French influence here-- not only from the architecture or the ample number of bakeries and
baguette stands (which don't exist at all in Thailand) but especially from the few Lao men I met who didn't speak a word
of English but were fluent in French. Strangely enough, the longest French conversation I've ever had was here where I
was for two days, not in Quebec where I spent four years (and I wasn't half bad either).
Next stop was Vang Vieng, a backpackers haven where we spent several days including New Years. Unfortunately I
was very sick here but I still managed to see some caves and crazy local markets where they sold not only beetles and
bugs of various sizes, but roasted squirrel, other unidentifiable mammals, owls, a live hawk being poked and prodded for
its meat, and a big pile of bats, among other things. (I actually only got diagnosed today after being sick on and off for
close to 3 weeks-- some sort of bacteria which is gone now). From Vang Vieng I lead the push to backtrack and go see
the Plain of Jars. This involved a treacherous 9 hour bus ride through a twisty, half-finished mountain highway. Some of
the boys were reluctant to travel all that way and back just to see some jars, but it turned out to be worth it. Even more
interesting then the jars themselves was the surrounding landscape-- everywhere was poc-marked with craters from the
secret war. Most fascinating was popping into a tiny Hmong village where instead of wooden stilts to raise their bamboo
huts, they were using discarded shells from US cluster bombs. The Plain of Jars was one of the two most heavily bombed
areas in Laos (the other being the Ho Chi Minh trail down south), but more on bombs later.
Next stop was the biggest city and the capital, Vientiane. (I was hoping to see the Two Towers here but there are no
movie theatres). The highlight was definitely the National History Museum. A lot of it looked like a grade 7 science fair the
way it was laid out with its pictures and accompanying blurbs. But the most interesting part was the 20th century floor. It
was replete with captions saying things like, "Here the brave people of Lao defeated the American imperialists" Every time
America or France was mentioned, "imperialists" followed. They had statues of Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in a few places,
called General Vang Pao (the Hmong general who fought alongside the Americans against the Pathet Lao) an evil
slaughterer of his own people, and they referred to the Japanese as fascists.
After a few days in Vientiane we headed south, hoping to find a jungle trek. Though there is so much untouched jungle, it
was nearly impossible to find a way to get to any of the national parks, and I'm sure even if we made it there wouldn't be
any trails. We settled for a day hike in the Xe Pian national forest which turned out to be very nice (especially seeing tiny
green parrots and hornbills from afar). But the real treat was Kiet Ngong, the tiny village from where we organized our
hike. Our huts overlooked a huge marshland where water buffalo and work elephants grazed all day. No one spoke a
word of English and they served us the exact same meal three times a day (noodle soup with chicken parts in it-- mostly
bone, beak, and fat) but we still managed to communicate with them and the villagers were all really friendly. One night
we heard what we thought was singing so we went to check it out-- it was just a bunch of men drinking rice whiskey and
about thirty people huddled intently around a t.v. in which you could just barely make out the dim shape of a man singing
into a microphone.
After Kiet Ngong we split up. Aaron, James, Sarah and I headed to Attapeu, by the Vietnam border. There was nothing
at all to do so we created something for ourselves. We met a man in the Laos UXO office (unexploded ordnance) and
agreed to pay him (a hefty fee) to take us out to see some de-mining. We drove down an endless dirt road through
villages where by the looks of it, the children had never seen white people before. Finally we got to the right village. The
de-mining itself was a bit anti climactic, but to our surprise, one of the villagers had recently found a live bomb about 500
m from the village. They took us to see it, it turned out to be a bomblet (about the size of a softball) from a cluster bomb
fully in tact. I took a picture and one of the villagers jumped in fear as my flash went off.
After that sobering experience, our UXO guy took us to Dong Amtham national park where Aaron and I were desperate
to at least spend a few hours hiking (carefully watching where we stepped, of course). But what we thought would be
pristine forest actually had a mammoth highway being built right through the middle of it in order to create a new border
crossing into Vietnam. So much for protected areas.
After Attapeu I made my way down to Si Phon Don (4000 islands) for some much needed R&R. I met Josh and Rocky
there and the other three followed a few days later. What an incredible place. I spent the whole time on Don Det in a nice
riverside bungalow which cost me about 70 cents a night. The islands are just beginning to get larger levels of tourists so
I'm sure within 3 or 4 years all the prices will be raised. But as it stands now its' a very quiet place with extremely friendly
Lao families trying to make you feel welcome. (My waitresses were often 7 year old girls or boys). There was an amazing
cascade waterfall on the island immediately south and also a boat that would take you to see the highly endangered
Irrawaddy dolphins-- freshwater dolphins (if you can call the Mekong fresh water) which sort of look like beluga whales.
We crossed the Cambodia border by boat and actually saw lots of them. Supposedly there are only 30 - 50 left but they
always feed at the same spot.
So that's Laos from north to south. The people are remarkably friendly and except for a few tuk-tuk drivers, almost no
one hassles you or begs for your money. The Lao people are very poor but not impoverished. I saw almost no beggars or
homeless people and you get friendly "sabaidees" almost everywhere you go. I'm sure in the next ten years the country will
look and feel much different, but it's landlocked so it will never go the way of Thailand and Vietnam.
From: jonathan friedrichs
Sent: Saturday, April 19, 2003 2:47 AM
Dear Friedrichs family,
It's been quite awhile since I last wrote from Thailand and since then I've covered a lot of ground and seen some amazing
things. So here is the highly selective update: After Thailand I travelled with my Vancouver friends all through Laos. It
was an enchanting place characterized by stilt houses, smiling people, and bad roads. Compared to Thailand, Laos felt
virtually untouched by the modern world-- there is no ATM machine in the entire country and the highest valued bill is
equivalent to about US $2! I think my favourite moment was the three days I spent in a tiny village called Kiet Ngong
deep within a protected national park. Not one villager spoke a word of English so communication was limited to hand
gestures and charades (For example, when we were hungry we would flap our arms and start bocking like a chicken.
Incidentally, we had chicken soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner during our entire stay there). Our bungalows overlook
After a terrific month in Laos, we all decided to do different things so I made my way solo up north, spending three
gruelling days on dusty roads and twisty mountain passes on my way up to China.
China was absolutely fascinating. I spent my first month in Yunnan province which is known as one of the most beautiful
and colourful regions in the country. I think one of the highlights of my trip so far was the 5 days I spent in Dali, an ancient
walled city surrounded by mountains on one side and a huge lake on the other. My stay there also corresponded with
Chinese New Years, which must be one of the most insane holidays on the planet. Everyone from little boys to wrinkly
old grannies were setting off firecrackers non-stop for three days. It really was a warzone, and I think some of them
found hidden pleasure in carefully aiming their firecrackers at the foreigners, but it was all in good fun (and of course, I
didn't wander the streets empty-handed myself).
I eventually made my way up north and did a three day trek in a stunning place known as Tiger Leaping Gorge before
heading further north to snowy Zhongdian, marking the beginnings of Tibetan-influenced China. Besides the yaks, I also
got a special taste of Tibetan culture by visiting a 300 year old Buddhist monastery complex.
China intrigued me so much that I decided to head all the way up to Beijing (I can't deny that I did have an ulteriour
motive of making my city-obsessed father jealous). One of the first things I saw as I stepped out of the subway was Mao
Zedong's enormous portrait hanging from the gates of the Forbidden City overlooking Tiananmen Square. What a
megalomaniac! Despite all the chaos he created, almost everyone I talked to still revered him as their greatest leader and
unifier. I spent two weeks soaking up all the historical sights Beijing had to offer, including visiting Mao's Mausaleum
along with throngs of Chinese tourists and walking a secluded section of the Great Wall of China, before heading back
south to warm my chilled bones (and to clear my lungs-- everyone in China smokes like a chimney).
I zipped through Vietnam in two and a half weeks, almost getting run over by motor bikes every time I crossed the streets
in Hanoi, soaking up the rays on the beach in Nha Trang, being surrounded by wild macaques on Monkey Island, and
crawling through the tunnels of Cu Chi (an incredibly elaborate network of underground passages the Viet Cong built not
far from Saigon). I also raced through Cambodia, though I would have loved to have spent more time there. Angkor
Wat, the massive thousand year old temple complexes, was really mind-boggling.
And now I'm back in Thailand. I just spent close to two weeks on an island called Ko Tao (where two of my Vancouver
friends came to join me for a few days). Ko Tao is known as one of the top spots in the world to get your diving
certification so I did a four day dive course as well as several free dives and was really blown away by the experience. It
is an unusually relaxing feeling floating around 18 metres under the sea and seeing something completely new at every turn
of the head. I saw forests of coral and anemones, hundreds of tropical fish, moray eels, reef sharks, blue-spotted
stingrays and a rare 6 foot whipray, and a giant sea turtle. Aside from the one dive I did where the needle on my air
gauge got stuck, indicating I had much more oxygen left in my tank than was actually the case, and causing me to have to
spit out my regulator and use my buddy's alternate air source, the entire dive experience went swimmingly. In all my life
I've never fel
And now I've got one more week to kill before heading to the jungles of Borneo and spending 6 weeks living with
orangutans. Bryan, you and I will have to compare our rainforest notes when I get back. I hope all is well with everyone
and I'd love some updates. (However, I won't have any internet access for 6 weeks in Borneo so any messages have to
be sent within the next week). Gary and Heather, give a gentle squeeze to Tazlina for me. Until next time.
JONATHAN’S REPORT FROM CAMP LEAKEY, BORNEO (May 20, 2003)
This program has been absolutely amazing so far. I knew I was heading into a good place when I saw proboscis monkeys
my first day in the national park during the boat ride down to Camp Leakey. They were sitting on branches overlooking
the river, peering down at us over those oversized schnozzes of theirs. By the time we arrived in Camp Leakey it was well
after dark, so we briefly met the Dayak assistants, and then basically set up our beds in the team house. The next day
proved to be one of the best of my entire trip. Shortly after sunrise, I awoke to some clumsy sounding thumping on the
walls. I looked up, saw a flash of orange, and then rushed outside. In my haste I had forgotten to set up the orangutan
safety lock. (There are a series of strings and levers we have to pull everytime we go into the team house, only one of
which the orangutans can't get through). So in walked Siswi, waking up all the other volunteers and ransacking the
common room a bit before eventually being coaxed outside. It was the perfect introduction to life at Camp Leakey.
In the afternoon we had another treat. About four of the ex-captive mothers, with their babies, congregated in a grassy
place and started rolling around and play-fighting. They were soon joined by a family of gibbons, and later by a few timid
crab-eating macaques who saw the action and came down from the trees. The gibbons would swing down from the trees
like trapeez artists, run awkwardly across the grass with their arms flailing comically above their heads, slap an orangutan
on the back when it wasn't looking and then run off. The orangutans just rolled around doing summer-saults, bit each
other, reached into our pockets looking for snacks, or just watched in the background, depending on their mood and
personality. This lasted for literally two hours. We all thought this intermingling of primates (4 in one place) was
commonplace but our coordinator said she'd never seen anything like it before. I really had the feeling that they could all
sense that we were newcomers and were putting on a show for us.
In the late afternoon we went to the feeding platform, about a 25 minute walk into the forest. There we met Kusasi, the
enormous dominant male. We were all told to give him ample space whenever he was on the move. (A few days later I
watched as a tourist was too slow and got attacked. He was the size of a football linebacker himself but was absolutely
helpless when being gripped by Kusasi. It could have been very grim, but he was lucky to come away basically
unscathed). My first day was filled with new things every step of the way. It was a truly special day.
There is so much more to tell. I got to go on a "follow." When wild orangutans are found by one of the Dayak assistants,
they follow them from morning till night for a span of 10 days, recording every minute detail in their logbook. So, I woke
up at 4 AM, hiked through the pitch black swamp forest for an hour and a half before setting up my hammock under their
nest and waiting for them to wake up. At around 7:30 the baby slowly clambered out of his nest and soon after so did the
mother. Whenever they rested, we rested, when they moved, we moved. This pair was unusually active, so we were on
the move a lot. Towards the end of the day a sub-adult male swung by, stopped dead when he saw us, kiss-squeaked
and dropped a few branches in our general direction, and then swung away as abruptly as he'd come. (I also got to see a
flying squirrel fly. They're usually nocturnal but this one got woken up by a dropped branch). Late in the afternoon, our
pair of orangs finally made their nest so we hacked our way back to our original trail and then walked home. It was an
exhausting 14 hour day in the swamp, but amazing.
I left Camp Leakey for a few days to do a modelling shoot. That's right, a modelling shoot. A big outdoor clothing
company from the UK uses "real people" doing "real things" and somehow got in touch with the OFI. Me and three others
were selected to strike a pose. It was definately the last thing I had expected to do in Borneo but I have to admit it was a
blast, not to mention that we got totally pampered. Soon my picture will be in magazines and shopping malls all over
Next came the swamp. Or so we thought. We had all been told we would be spending 20 days in a swamp building a
"pondok" along a strategic point in the river, far from Camp Leakey, to prevent illegal loggers from penetrating deeper
into the park. All of us, including our own coordinator, had envisioned working in muddy ground with the occasional ankle
or shin-deep pools, but we arrived at a place with literally no dry ground whatsoever. So basically, for the last 9 days we
have been living on a raft and working in waist-deep water. There is no dry ground in sight and no one has ventured more
than 50 feet in any one direction for that whole time (it's a good thing we all get along). We aren't supposed to bathe right
in the river because of crocs-- last year a man got eaten alive right at Camp Leakey -- so we bathe in swamp water. I've
only seen one croc so far, though it was only a few minutes boat ride away from our pondok. We've gotten to know our
section of "swamp" extremely well. Luckily, it is a beautiful spot. The pondok has come together faster than anticipated so
after the free weekend we're going back only for 5 days, and then spending the last week hanging out in Camp Leakey.
SECOND REPORT FROM INDONESIA (June 8, 2003) added to web site June 26, 2003
Well, I'm slowly getting used to life without big orange apes running all over the place. Here's a brief summary of my last
2 weeks in Kalimantan. We spent 5 more days finishing up the pondok. Remarkably, by the time we were back from
our free weekend most of the water had receded! By the time we left it was just mud, we were all astounded by how
abruptly the wet season morphed into the dry season. You could even feel the difference in the air, not too mention there
was no more need to scrub mold and mildew off all our clothes every two days. The mud had its advantages in one way
at least, more critters to see on the ground-- the best was watching as a snake digested a much bigger frog. First it
dislocated its jaw and then grotesquely devoured it alive over the next few hours until all that was left was a lump in the
snake's neck. Finishing the pondok was a great accomplishment. And extremely important for Camp Leakey's study
A few times while we were there, we watched boats float by with illegal loggers who were going to mark trees for cutting
once the water had drained away. Now that the area is dry, the loggers will start attempting to penetrate the forest and
the conflicts have already begun-- just a week ago a logger was shot and killed by a policeman just beyond our pondok.
Violence of this sort is rare and big news in a place with such a small population. There is a good chance the loggers will
try to burn down our pondok now, though of course the OFI had nothing to do with the shooting. There's a lot at stake
for everyone, the OFI, the loggers, the timber tycoons, and of course the abundance of corrupt government officials.
On a lighter note, our last week at Camp Leakey was relaxed. I went on 2 more follows and also witnessed an extremely
monumental occasion in Camp Leakey's history. Kusasi, the dominant male for over 10 years was beaten in a vicious
fight by another younger male. It was pretty grim to watch and one could'nt help feel a little sad to see the end of an era. I
also saw a few crocs, monitor lizards and many more proboscis monkeys.
I'm once again on my own now, strange after being with people 24 hours a day for the last 6 weeks. I went with the
other volunteers to Borobudor temple, north of Yogyakarta. It's billed as being as impressive as Angkor Wat, which it
isn't at all, but it was still excellent. I came down here to Yogya 2 days ago. A few of volunteers are heading to Australia,
but the rest are already all back home. I'm beginning to get back into travel mode, but I must say, I left Camp Leakey a
little reluctantly. .
See the photo below Jonathan on the left
"It's a picture of Team 1, some of the Dayak carpenters, and the pondok we built entirely from scratch. No orangutans
From: jonathan friedrichs [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 01, 2003 5:54 AM
To: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm in Tana Toraja, a rural area dotted with picturesque hillside villages and most famous for its ostentatious funeral
ceremonies. I happended to arrive just in time for the funeral of the wife of one of the main chiefs-- it was fascinating,
colourful, enormous, and gruesome. The Torajans believe that buffalo are needed to help carry the deceased into the
afterworld-- the more wealthy the family, the more buffalo are slaughtered. This was a wealthy family so there was a lot
of bloodshed. Besides the sacrifices, I spent the day watching the various rituals and parades and dances and was then
invited by a man to sleep in his bamboo hut with him and his family, so I did. The whole experience was pretty crazy, but
I'll give you more details later.
Just wanted to let you know I'm going trekking in a forest 12 hours north of here, if I can arrange it, and then perhaps to
some small islands afterwards, so there will be no email access for some time, but I'll get back to you as soon as I'm back
in a city. I've heard that there is some sort of Al-Qaida network fascillitating attacks against Christian communities in
central Sulawesi. Lucky for me, I'm Jewish! I guess that's not really so amusing. I'm not sure how accurate that is, or
come to think of it, why I'm even telling you this. But don't worry, I'll make sure to steer clear of the fanatics. Hope all is
well at home. Jeremy, have an wicked-ass time in Alaska! Make sure to say hi to Tazlina and co. for me.