In 1942 my great-grandfather, Dirk Huisken was captured by the Japanese in Sumatra. As a prisoner of war he became part of what has come to be known as the Pekanbaru Death Railway – 220kms of rail through the most impossibly rugged and mountainous terrain. Dirk, along with 1000’s of Allied soldiers and civilians and well over 100,000 press-ganged Javanese labourers died while building the railway line, which ironically, was completed on the day Japan surrendered and and was never used.
Let’s face it, medical dietary restrictions can be well… restrictive. When you can sometimes struggle to feed yourself in your own city, travelling overseas as a vegan coeliac can seem like mission impossible. But with some planning, research and flexibility it’s not that difficult. And… we found that trying to explain (in another language) your weird dietary requirements to cooks and waiters can actually even add to the trip. So, these are our tips for travelling to SE Asia if you’re a coeliac – they’re not extensive but they might just help make your trip a little less stressful.
Before you go.
The internet is your friend. Google your destination for gluten free restaurants, supermarkets and delis. When we find a good one we screenshot the details so the information is available even when we’re not connected to wifi.
Choose your hotel or guesthouse wisely. We usually try to stay in small hotels or guesthouses that have been well reviewed – Tripadvisor is your friend here but Travelfish and other travel sites are really useful too. We look for guest comments that suggest the owner is flexible and helpful. Big hotels may offer gluten free food as part of the breakfast buffet but a small place is more likely to cook you something to order.
At the Citadel in deep ponds the koi, like shards of afternoon light, swam at the surface waiting for crumbs. I stood with my eldest son in the rain. Tiny frogs hid in cracks between the pavers while we traced a spray of bullet holes on a wall, the mortar crumbling damply beneath our fingers. The rain, in sheets, closed out the distance and we shivered in the small space where we stood, between the darkened sky and the wet stone.
My notebook from that trip is a child's exercise book. It is dog eared from dampness, the writing smudged, pages missing. I wrote in hotel rooms and airports. At Khe Sanh I wrote as I watched ladies in conical hats sweep the ground slowly with metal detectors and the sun was high between the hills around us. On the train south from Danang I wrote perched on a bench greasy with years of use, the smell of old smoke and the carriages rocking like a boat at anchor.
One lunchtime at a cafe outside of town we perched on kindergarten sized chairs, and the children, delighted, fed the resident cats with their fingers and drank coke straight from the bottle. I still have a bottle opener from that trip. It was made by a man who couldn't speak from a thin piece of wood and two screws. On it he wrote, "Hue 2011." When you use it, the beer bottle tops fly off like insects.
Embarking on a day in the jungle my western arrogance thought it knew roughly what it would be like - after all, Google shows us the photos and multiple trip advisor reviews describe the experience well. That experience, however, can't be penned, or captured in a photograph. The feeling, the smell, the sound of the jungle - it's unlike anything you can ever imagine.
Deep in the jungle, surrounded by nothing but trees that seem to reach far in to the sky, vines, countless plants, mosses, insects and the most amazing animals truly living in their natural habitat, evoked an emotion I've not felt before. Excitement, mixed with love, compassion and anger towards our own race who have single handedly destroyed so much of this.
Passing through the village we watch the long tailed macaques enjoy some morning play and picked up water and supplies for the day. The locals all smiled and practiced their English with us as they did every day that we wondered through the village. Ari and Juli exchanged friendly remarks with them as we headed off.
We began our trek up a steep climb, feeling tiny in the vast 2,000,000 acres of wild jungle.
The first time I saw an orangutan in the jungle I wasn't sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. They are so extraordinary, so perfectly adapted for their lives amongst the tree tops that it is hard to reconcile the animals that I have seen in zoos with the ones we saw in the jungle canopy. They move across the canopy, agile and beautiful. Your heart does funny things when you see them, it skips and swells. Your neck hurts from looking upwards but you can't look down and your face starts to ache from smiling.
I fear for a future where the only way to see these beautiful animals is in zoos – it would be like only ever seeing whales in holding tanks or birds in cages too small for flight. Without the medium of the jungle they are cute pot bellied primates, in the jungle they soar.
Most of the orangutans who live in the forest around Bukit Lawang have suffered because of humans but only two of them openly show their dislike. Mina has bitten countless guides and tourists. Jackie doesn't bite, but occasionally she will leave the canopy and firmly take hold of a passing tourist, refusing to let go until paid with food. Our guides carried back packs with generous banana bribes, just in case. About half way through our day-long trek we stopped on a ridge to watch an orangutan in the canopy below us. As she started moving towards us Ari said, "That's Jackie," and frowned. Because of the fractured jungle light and the thick foliage it was...
From the air Sumatra seemed divided by rivers. Driving through Medan, it looked as though the city was also. The monsoon had cleared the air of smoke but had also overflowed the gutters and tipped the rivers from their banks.
It was dark by the time we cleared customs. Driving from the airport our taxi driver nosed the cab into a puddle that widened at first into a stream and then into a rush of dirty water that stretched for blocks. Traffic slowed around us and, in the red reflection of tail lights, a diesel slick rainbow. A man with jeans rolled to his knees smiled and waved as he pushed his stalled motorbike through the water while children played and an old man squatted, smoking, watching the flood flow past his house. Our taxi driver adjusted the radio and the water lapped the bottom of the car.
We moved slowly through the flood in first gear, like a dinghy, the tinny sound of the water and the slap of waves beneath our feet. At our hotel we laughingly mentioned the flood and the staff smiled politely, waiting for the joke.
In the morning light Medan looked dirty, the air thick with car horns and a grey humid haze. Our guide, Omar arrived, dressed for a far colder climate – "I'm allergic to air-conditioning," he said apologetically – a large camera around his neck. We began our tour by posing with Omar for the first of many photos. We posed at the post office, the Sultan's residence and on the front steps of a house once owned by a Chinese philanthropist. At a Sikh temple we put on headscarves and posed next to the altar, careful not to turn our backs on the house of god. We visited the university, a high school and a private library owned by a granddaughter of the Sultan.