Posts Tagged With: backpacking

Selamat Jalan!

They say if you want to see what Bali was like 30 years ago, go to Lombok; undeveloped, but rich in natural beauty and Indonesian culture. Our first stop was to the Gili’s, three small ellipses of islands off of the northwest coast of Lombok. We decided to take the speed boat across the Bali Straight, despite cautionary tales of rough seas and the fact that one company’s boat sank two years ago. Travel agencies in Ubud start selling a ticket at Rp 660,000 (~$68), which is absurd for a 1-hour trip in Indonesia. We opted to go to the harbor in Padang Bai ourselves and book once we saw the seaworthiness of the boats. I made notes about which companies had good reviews and which ones to avoid (namely the one that sank: Eka Jayah!). Ben and I shopped around and negotiated with a man at the Gili Cat booth for Rp 200,000 each. That’s more like it! He quickly wrote up our tickets and told us to hurry over to the boat because it was leaving soon. We were excited to get such a good deal (because I’m sure there are some people who actually pay Rp 660,000) so we grabbed Gabriella and hurried over to the boat only to find that we had just booked with…Eka Jayah! Whoops! It was too late now so we just had to hope for the best. I put on a smile and didn’t tell Gabriella until we made it safely across. 😉 Luckily, the sea was calm that day and the driver was responsible, but it certainly was not a relaxing ride.

We decided to go to Gili Air, a happy medium between the party scene on Gili Trawangan and the doldrums of Gili Meno. The island is small enough to walk the circumference in 90 minutes. There are no motor vehicles, no pushy salesmen, and no worries. Most of our time was spent relaxing in a hammock in the shade, listening to the waves, and playing Sudoku. It’s true…we’re hooked. We also made time to stay fit with a classic Boe Trosset workout routine and attended a sunset yoga class at H2O yoga.


Every night, the restaurants display their fresh catch and make deals with passing customers. The typical selection included red or black snapper, barracuda, tuna, jackfish, squid, and prawn. We would usually negotiate enough fish for the three of us, plus three plates of rice and veggies, for about $10-12. Not to mention a large beer (660ml/22oz) was only $2.50! This is the life…

One of the main attractions for the Gili’s is diving. I had never been, but Ben went once in the Red Sea. It has always been an option for us on this trip (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia), but Gabriella and I were never interested in trying. Snorkeling was always enough. Since Ben had been before, I thought I’d give it a shot. We spent the morning learning how to use the equipment and practicing in the pool to get a feel for being underwater, and at 11:30am it was time for the real thing!


The boat took us out to a dive site called Meno Wreck. A large storage container had sunk there years ago and there was tons of coral growing on it. At first, I was nervous about going that far under water with so much water pressure above me, but I quickly got used to it. We descended slowly and popped our ears every 3-4 feet (1m) as the pressure changed. Before I knew it, we were 40 feet (12m) under! It was difficult to maintain an even amount of space between myself and the ocean floor, at first. I didn’t want to touch anything because the coral is so fragile and takes years to grow, but I wanted to get a good look at the colors and designs. I also had to be careful with my fins and tank to not bump into anything. After a bit, I got the hang of it and it was amazing! Sometimes I would turn to look where Ben was at and ended up upside down doing a somersault. It was so crazy to look up and see the surface of the water so far overhead. Checking out the wreck was pretty cool, too. There were so many fish around of all different sizes and colors. I really wish I could have brought the underwater camera with me, but it’s only rated to go down 16 feet (5m). At my deepest, I was about 50 feet (15m) down. The dive lasted just over 30 minutes because my air was getting low. I guess it was all those flips… 😉 I also think I wasn’t controlling my breathing too much in the beginning and taking a lot of quick, shallow breaths. That sort of stuff comes with experience, and I definitely hope to try it again!

From Gili Air, we went to the main island of Lombok and south to Kuta. This small beach town is the biggest attraction outside of the Gili’s, but still relatively quiet and undeveloped. The beach is nestled in a cove protected by land formations on either side with bright blue water and clean white sand. Upon first look, we were stunned, but the sunset that night was even more amazing. Believe or not, this isn’t even the most beautiful beach in the area!


We spent a couple of days exploring with motorbikes again and thought we found heaven on earth. Less than 10km east is Tanjung An, a true rival to the beauty of Hawaii. The only downfall is the rapid commercialization of the area and the locals that constantly try to sell tourists their goods. In one area, development has already begun for a five-star resort that will be completed within the next few years. It’s easy to see why they chose this location.

Heading west from Kuta we ventured out to Mawaun Beach. The road was terrible and consisted mostly of washed-out gravel. We went up and down with some amazing viewpoints in between, but the real reward was when we arrived. The bay was enclosed by rocks and virtually empty except for maybe five other people. The water was pure blue with shimmering sunlight on the surface and the sand soft and white. I only regretted that we got there late in the day because I could’ve spent hours swimming and body surfing.

Mawaun beach

Everything about Lombok seems to suggest that it’s paradise, but that isn’t exactly the full picture. Although the landscape is amazing, the social issues are disappointing. Children are constantly begging tourists to buy bracelets. Women walk the streets with stacks of sarongs on their head. Teenage boys offer tee-shirts and coconuts, each for only a few dollars. From the minute you step outside of the hotel the locals try to sell you something…anything. “Motorbike today?” “You buy bracelet?” “One sarong for you?” Even on the beach, relaxing in a lounge chair, no one will leave you alone. We finally gave in one day and Ben and I each bought a sarong from two women who weren’t aggressive and held a genuine conversation with us about life in Kuta, Lombok. They even tried to teach us how to balance the sarong stack on our head. It’s much harder than I thought!

Kuta-Lombok 084        Kuta-Lombok 086

Every day, we saw the same adorable kids and eventually got to know their real names (some give fake “Western” names so that tourists will remember them easier) and a bit about their life. Mon-Sat they would go to school from 7am-12pm, and then by 1pm they would be walking around selling their goods until someone came to pick them up around 8-9pm. We felt uncomfortable buying anything because we weren’t sure where the money actually goes, but often times we would try to engage them in conversation and make them laugh for a little bit—keeping the kids, kids. Sometimes we would offer to buy them food instead of their bracelets, but they seemed reluctant and shy about accepting anything other than money. One night when we were at dinner, Ben decided to buy a meal for a girl who had given him an Indonesian lesson the day before. Some of her friends were around so I suggested getting even more for them, too. Before we knew it, there were six kids scarfing down a few bowls of noodles we ordered. Some of their parents came to take them home while they were eating and I didn’t know if the kids would get in trouble, but one of the parents actually thanked us for feeding her son. It was the least we could do… We sometimes forget what a fortunate life we have and how lucky we were to grow up in a stable home with three meals a day, only working when we were old enough and ready for a job.

Kuta kids

After five nights in Kuta, Lombok, it was time to head back to Bali. Ben’s flight left out of Denpasar and he wanted to spend his last two nights in Kuta, Bali. We also wanted a day to check out Tanah Lot, a temple in the water that is only accessible at low tide. The cliffside landscape was beautiful and we stayed for sunset.

Tanah Lot

The only similarity between the two Kuta’s is the name. Kuta, Bali is the most developed and commercialized area of Bali filled with hotels, restaurants, and night clubs aimed at Western tourists. Again, I got the feeling that there are way too many people trying to make a living off of the tourism industry. You can’t step foot outside of the hotel without someone asking where you’re going, if you need transportation, or if you want to buy a ______ (shirt/hat/shoes/book/bag/souvenir/first born). Even a quick glance into a roadside stall would elicit cat calls from all neighboring shops.

On Ben’s last night, we went to one of these Westerner-aimed clubs to celebrate a great two-and-a-half weeks together. Unfortunately, this bar seemed to import prices as well as beer and it felt more like a night out in NY. Regardless, we had a good time and I tried to be Ben’s wingman to make his last night even more memorable. Haaaave ya met Ben? Maybe my face scared them away…sorry Ben!

this is how we do it

The last few days of our SE Asia experience were spent hanging out at the beach and shopping for some last-minute items at Indonesian prices (including a guitar!). One day we rented a motorbike and drove around the southern peninsula to Uluwatu (a temple on the cliff). The views were unbelievable and the air was thick with spiritual energy.

Uluwatu cliffs

I also spent a few days with a long-board and learned how to surf! On Thanksgiving! I tried in Hawaii and Sri Lanka, but finally got the hang of it in Bali. Catching some waves as the sun sinks into the sea is something I’ll never forget. And my red nipples for a few days after made sure I wouldn’t forget!


At this point, time has certainly escaped us. Just like that, it’s been eight months of travel in nine new countries with one amazing woman. I couldn’t have done it without my Zuzu! Learning the culture, cuisine, and climate of each new place has taught me lessons that must be experienced to be understood. I hope I never take for granted a flushing toilet, clean drinking water from the tap, and municipal waste management. Meeting the locals in the community, and even other travelers, has broadened my perspective on the world and what’s important in life. No amount of reading will ever provide the same feeling. I encourage everyone to step outside the box, do something uncomfortable, and visit a place that you would never think to call home. Live in an ashram in India, travel by boat down the Mekong River, walk the Killing Fields in Cambodia, spend the night in the Sumatran rain forest, teach English to Indonesian children! I did. And it was the most rewarding experience of my life.


From Bali we flew west to Jakarta, spent the night, flew to Singapore in the morning, had a 6-hour layover, and then flew 10 hours overnight to Auckland. New Zealand…here we come!


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Balinese Dreams

The ferry from Java to Bali was only one hour, but I could’ve sworn we arrived in India. Sketchy men tried to scam us at the bus station, Hindu sculptures protected villages on the side of the road, and the bus driver stopped near a shrine on the side of the road for a woman to bless the vehicle (complete with a splashing of holy water).

Our incredibly long day that started with Ijen ended in Sanur, where we celebrated Gabriella’s birthday in style by staying in a hotel room with hot water AND a/c!! We spent her birthday walking down the beach, enjoying the sites of our new destination, and indulging in her birthday wishes (i.e. gelato and coconuts). Sanur is more of a posh tourist destination for those with families (and money), but in the style of Balinese culture. There are designer shops down the streets and every restaurant had prices similar to those back home; quite a shock after Sumatra and Java.

After the two-night birthday-splurge, we headed north to Lovina, another beach town. Its charm mostly comes from its unique black sand made from volcanic ash.

We rented a motorbike for two days and explored along the northern coast. We visited traditional Balinese temples (one overrun by monkeys), bathed with dragons at Air Banjar hot springs, hiked through fields of vanilla and clove to Git Git waterfall, and took a refreshing dip at the Air Senih fresh water spring. The traffic was annoying, but the sites were amazing. Balinese architecture is unlike anything else we had seen in Sumatra or Java and the offerings of flowers, rice, and incense in a banana leaf basket brought a whole new cultural experience.

On our last day in Lovina, we gave in to the touts and booked a sunrise trip to go see the dolphins. Everyone tries to sell the trip to all the tourists, and at $6.25 it’s kind of hard to pass up. We were picked up at 5:45am by our “captain” and hopped into a canoe with a motor. The sun began rising behind the mountains as our boat puttered away from the coast. Sure enough, there were about 20 other boats on the water with the same intentions of spotting dolphins in the early morning light. It didn’t take long though to see whole families (err…schools? packs? herds?) of dolphins jumping out of the water in unison. The boats veered left and right to try to anticipate the best view for their customers. At first, I wasn’t too psyched about waking up at 5am to go chase dolphins, but it was truly magical experience to see so many swimming together. After 30 minutes though, it just felt like chasing dolphins again and I felt bad for polluting their territory so we could snap a photo.

From Lovina, we went 2 hours south to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. It was here that we met up with our Kahumana friend Ben (aka Holo)! We worked together on the farm in Hawaii and he lives in Germany now. He decided to spend his two-week vacation from work with us in Indonesia!

Our first day, we walked through the hillside and terraced rice fields, allowing him to decompress from the stress of a full-time job (what’s that like?!). Then, we rented motorbikes again and drove north to south across the eastern part of Bali. It was great to just cruise, but we also stopped to admire the beauty of Mount Batur, with the adjacent Lake Batur, and the oldest temple in Bali, Besakih, where we learned how to make a Hindu prayer with the offerings. At night, we attended a traditional Balinese music and dance performance, complete with gamelan orchestra. The costumes were amazing and the music was so intricately composed.

Ubud was a decent place, but it is becoming overrun with tourism and losing the Balinese charm that attracted people here in the first place. There are way too many people trying to make a living off of tourism and the salespeople can quickly become irritating. It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone shouting at you to have a look in their shop, get a massage, rent a motorbike, or take a taxi. But it’s their livelihood and the desperation is apparent. Fortunately, we moved further east to the Gili Islands next, where there are no cars, no clocks, and no worries.

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From India to Indonesia…

The aphorism “saving the best for last” couldn’t be truer. Indonesia is the last SE Asian country of our journey and my favorite so far. Each place we’ve been to over the last 4 weeks has brought a special experience that makes me glad we have 8 weeks here. The people are genuinely friendly, the food is delicious, the scenery is stunning, and everything is so cheap!

We started west in Sumatra with a 2-day trek in the jungle near Bukit Luwang. We observed the endangered Sumatran orangutan in the wild, spotted gibbons, peacocks and owls, and our guide captured a giant red centipede because it has medicinal qualities for treating asthma. The orangutans were so friendly and full of curiosity that it was hard to leave, especially when we spotted a mother with her baby.


Then it was south to Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Afternoon showers encouraged interesting conversations amongst fellow travelers under the common area canopy; Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, Australian, Kiwi, Iranian, Canadian, American. If only our leaders could converse so civilized… When it wasn’t raining we visited hot springs, sat by the lake, and learned about Batik architecture and culture. At $6/night for a room and $1.25 for a meal, we easily stayed for 6 nights.

Then we flew southeast to West Java and did a homestay in the small town of Cianjur. We didn’t see another Westerner for 3 days! Our host set us up with two English teachers who took us to work with them one day. The couple travels to 3 schools every day, driving up to an hour between each one, just to make ends meet and keep their two children in school. (Public school ends at 9th grade here) We helped teach children ages 9-11, whose excitement was seldom contained, and felt like celebrities at each stop. Everyone wanted a picture and an autograph! The next day, we got dirty learning how to be a rice farmer in the knee-deep muck of a rice paddy. The owner of the farm is also a teacher at the local university and asked if we could come speak to his students to help them practice English. Again, the excitement of a Westerner ensued. Overall, the locals embraced our visit with warmth, enthusiasm, and generosity.


From there it was 10 hours east to Yogyakarta where we stayed for a week taking care of some business. We got our visa extended, bought some new clothes, and experienced one of the rarest (and best) coffees in the world: Kopi Luwak (yes, the civet-poop coffee). Even at $8 per cup, it was a steal compared to prices back home! We also took time to visit Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, which was absolutely stunning in the early morning light. I thought about hiking Mount Merapi, the most active volcano on the most active volcanic island, but Gabriella convinced me otherwise. Besides, there were other volcanoes in our future.

Heading further east across Java, we stopped twice more to witness Mount Bromo at sunrise and the blue fire of Kawah Ijen before dawn. The viewpoint at Bromo was crowded and touristy at 4:30am, but for good reason. The sun rose perfectly at 5am, illuminating 3 volcanic peaks and a massive crater, while clouds blanketed the valley below. At 6am, our jeep took us closer to the crater where we hiked up to the edge and peered down inside the smoking bowl. By 8am we were having breakfast overlooking the Mars-like volcanic landscape and at 9am we hit the road.

Eight hours later we arrived at a guesthouse near a coffee plantation in preparation for visiting Ijen. The original plan was to leave at 4am, drive 60 minutes to the park entrance, and hike 90 minutes to the crater lake. We heard rave reviews from other travelers that the “blue fire” was a must-see, but could only be experienced at night. This meant leaving at 1am instead of 4am so we would arrive before the sun was up. After coaxing the driver with some extra cash for waking up early, we left at 1:15am and made it to the crater lake just before 4am. Luckily, we met another group on the trail with a guide and he showed us the way down to the blue fire.

Kawah Ijen is basically a sulfur mine at the bottom of a crater with a glowing lake adjacent to it. The blue fire is burning sulfur. We got as close as we safely could to get some pics, but then the wind shifted and we were engulfed in sulfuric smoke that burned our eyes and throats and made us even more disoriented in the dark hours before dawn. Still…it was totally worth it. When we made it back up to the top, the sun was brightening the sky and we could finally see the amazing landscape that surrounded us. The blue fire disappeared and all that remained was billowing sulfuric smoke from a pit of bright yellow sulfur where we had been standing moments earlier. Behind it was the stunning crater lake glowing turquoise.

As the morning progressed, we saw men coming to mine the sulfur and carry baskets back to town. Each would load 2 wicker baskets connected by a stick of bamboo and haul it on their shoulder for nearly 2 hours; up from the bottom of the crater and down to the village 3km away. The load weighs about 100kg and they do one trip per day, which pays about $10 USD. I could barely even lift one basket an inch off the ground and couldn’t imagine carrying it uphill! Truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been.

From Ijen, it was back to the hotel by 7am, 2 hours in a van to the bus station, 2 hours on a bus, 1-hour ferry to Bali, 4-hour local bus to Denpasar, and 30-minute bemo (van) ride to Senur. We finally collapsed in the hotel with hot shower and comfy bed at 6pm. Just in time to celebrate Gabriella’s birthday in Bali the next day!

more pics…

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Feeling Singa-poor

Singapore is an anomaly in SE Asia. Is it a country? Is it city? Am I really not allowed to spit? One thing is for sure: it’s clean!

We stopped by for a quick 3 days/2 nights before heading to Indonesia. It was a nice break to have the conveniences of a developed nation, but it came with high prices. For the first time on this trip we stayed in a dorm-style room (Sleepy Kiwi Hostel), which means 10 bunk beds in one room, shared bathroom, and lockers for the valuables. It was $15/person/night. Half of that would usually buy us a nice hotel room! Regardless, it was clean, comfortable, and close to public transportation.

Most of our time was spent taking care of things that only a technology hub could provide. I broke the screen of my iPhone in Malaysia, but there were plenty of places to get it repaired in Singapore. (Let’s just hope my travelers insurance covers it *fingers crossed*) We also tried to get Gabriella’s camera fixed because there’s a spot on the lens, but they said it would require at least a week to do. In such an expensive city, we couldn’t afford to stay that long, so for now we’ll just live with it. The rest of the time we browsed through air-conditioned malls and gawked at the incredibly high prices.

Singapore is a model for sustainability in a part of the world that desperately needs the example. Public transportation is adequate and easy to use, there are green spaces for public use (even on a high rise building – see pic), and trash bins are accompanied by recycling bins. This was also the first place where it was safe to drink the tap water!


The architecture is unique and it gave us a feeling of being in a big city back home. We agreed it was most similar to Vancouver, but I felt hints of Orlando and Chicago, too. The streets are clean, there are skyscrapers (most of which are banks), and a harbor with a giant Ferris wheel.


All in all, Singapore is a great place to visit if you have the money to enjoy it. For backpackers like us, it was in and out before the funds got too low. We really appreciated having the basic things like clean water, a flushing toilet, and functioning waste management that often get taken for granted back home. But then again, traveling is more interesting without those luxuries. 😉

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Malaysian Invasion!

For the first time in nearly 3 months we took a flight to our next destination. What a luxurious option in comparison to another overnight bus ride! It was partly due to hostility near the Thailand/Malaysia border, but the bus ride avoidance cannot be denied. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, we were given a free 90-day visa to explore Malaysia.

We began the seventh country of this trip with a few days in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. Lots of money has flowed into developing KL in recent years due to Malaysia’s oil resources. There are large skyscrapers, a high-tech train system, and well-manicured public spaces. It’s apparent that the government has more money than other Southeast Asian nations and has invested in infrastructure and education. Consequently, prices for food, accommodation, and other commodities were a bit higher than what we had been used to spending.

The main attraction in KL is the world-renowned Petronas Towers. Standing at 1,483 ft, the twin towers were the highest building in the world from 1998-2004 until Taipei 101 took the prize. There’s a bit of a technicality about the architectural significance of the spires versus antennas when calculating total height, which make it listed as taller than the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) in Chicago, even though the roof of the Petronas Tower is 208 ft lower than the roof of the Willis Tower. Regardless, they are still the tallest twin towers in the world and an architectural marvel that are a must-see for any visitor. The rest of our time was spent exploring the massive markets in Chinatown and Little India while avoiding the monsoon rains that flooded the canal one evening.


From KL we traveled north to the Cameron Highlands. Four hours on a bus winding through narrow streets climbing higher into the hills brought us to cooler temperatures and a more scenic landscape. The town itself isn’t anything special, but the rewards lie outside the city limits.

We took a day-tour to see the Highlands, which took us 6,663 ft to the top of Mount Batu Brinchang, but the weather was cloudy and there wasn’t much of a view. Next was the mossy forest and a tea plantation, but we both agreed that Sri Lanka was better. Then we visited a strawberry farm and bought the usual tourist-trap snacks (fresh strawberries, dried strawberries, strawberry ice cream). It was all a bit commercial and nothing like a wild strawberry patch. Finally, we were taken to a Buddhist temple from where we walked back to town on one of the many trails through the forest. The scenery was nice for the most part, but we came across a patch of deforested area towards the end that was disappointing. Cameron Highlands was mediocre, and certainly not a place to stay more than two nights.

From there, we went east to Taman Negara National Park. It took nearly 8 hours, including a 3-hour boat ride up the river to the town from where you can explore the park. The trails are easy enough to navigate without a guide so the next day we decided to hike one direction, and then have a boat pick us up and take us back. We met a couple from Scotland to hike with and share the cost of the boat back and even met two other couples on the trail to cut expenses even further. We started with a short 2-km circuit to see Bukit Teresek and the rainforest canopy walk (typical tourist trail). Then we walked parallel to the river for 10kms.

This was my first experience in a true rainforest and apparently Taman Negara is the oldest. The lush flora was an impressive display of infinite shades of green. Massive trees extended overhead as their roots protruded through the forest floor. The air was fresh and the sound of cicadas and birds followed us throughout. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we came in contact with was a gibbon that jumped down from a tree and ran away too fast to have a good look, and a wild boar that could be heard squealing somewhere nearby. The rest of the time was spent avoiding giant ants, termites, and leeches. The leeches proved to be a pretty big problem since it was now the rainy season. It was a good thing our friends brought along a bag of salt! They seemed particularly attracted to Gabriella, but towards the end of the hike we were stopping every few minutes because someone needed to stop to get one off. One day-hike was enough for us and we wasted no time getting to the beach.


A scenic 8-hour car ride took us to Kuala Besut from where we took a 30-minute speed boat to the Perhentian Islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia. We went to Pulau Kecil (the smaller of two islands) and found accommodations on Coral Beach, the quieter side. After hopping through three destinations in six nights we wanted to take it easy. The entire island can be circled on foot in less than 3 hours. There are no ATMs. There are no cars. Life moves slow.

Once we were ready to be active again, we took a snorkeling trip around the island to 4 different spots. The first was filled with colorful fish and coral in crystal-clear water. The second had a couple of turtles to swim with (but I felt kind of bad for them because they were surrounded by tourists vying for a glimpse). Then, we went to a spot with reef sharks! There were about 5-6 of them swimming around and underneath us at about 3-5 feet long. Turtles I’d seen in Hawaii, but I’ve never swam with sharks! They’re so graceful in the water and can change direction in an instant. Finally, we went to a spot with even more amazing coral and fish, and we spotted a stingray skimming the ocean floor.


Another day, I finally took Gabriella’s advice to “take a hike” and went for a walk around the island. 😉 There’s an easily carved path that extends down the west coast and around the southern coast to the Fishing Village. It took about an hour to go halfway around the island. Along the way were a couple of perfectly hidden beaches between shaded paths through the forest scattered with giant monitor lizards rustling in the brush. The biggest one was about 5-feet long!


Despite the relaxing 6 nights we stayed on the island, we were a bit disappointed with the Malaysia experience, overall. It was a place I was looking forward to going to, but didn’t quite live up the expectations. The scenery was nice, but nothing that wasn’t similar to a place we had already been. (Are we getting spoiled?) Accommodations and transportation were more than we had been spending in other countries and generally of lesser quality. We paid more for a double room in Malaysia with fan, cold shower, and no wifi than we did in Vietnam for A/C, hot shower, and wifi. Two weeks was enough for us to get a feel for peninsular Malaysia, and then move south to Singapore.

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SoThai and Limestone

We spent three and a half weeks exploring Thailand in July, but we didn’t see the south. Geographically, it made sense for us to start from Bangkok and head north, and then continue west and south in an almost clockwise direction through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Now we were heading back east to Bangkok from Siem Reap to go south and eventually continue on through Malaysia and Indonesia. Luckily, Dustin allowed us to crash at his place for a night in-transit. We used the day in Bangkok to shop for a new camera for Gabriella, since hers mysteriously disappeared in Laos. She got an awesome waterproof camera that certainly came in handy at the beach.

From Bangkok, we hopped on an overnight train to Chumphon, and then took a 3-hour ferry to the island of Koh Tao. At the pier, we were greeted with the usual folk fighting for our business with transportation and accommodations. We settled on the popular beach of Sairee and found a decent bungalow steps from the water for about $20/night. Koh Tao is a small island, only 21 sq. km, with a handful of beautiful beaches dispersed around the edges.

We rented a motorbike for two days and explored the different areas. Narrow roads weave left and right, up and down through the lush landscape. Every so often, we were rewarded with an amazing lookout point of the hills, rocks, and endless sea. Sometimes, I didn’t think the bike would make it up the incline and once or twice Gabriella actually had to jump off so I’d have enough power to get to the top. It was always worth it though. Each beach we stopped at seemed to get progressively better than the last. On the second day, we visited Hin Wong Bay for some of the most amazing snorkeling. For the first time since we’ve been traveling, we felt this destination could rival Hawaii for its natural beauty.


We spent five nights relaxing by the beach and swimming in the clear, warm water of the Gulf of Thailand before taking another ferry south to neighboring Koh Phangan. This island is significantly bigger, around 167 sq. km, and is famous for its ritual Full Moon Party. We heard that this rave of drunken strangers was isolated to one corner of the island and that the rest was too beautiful to miss. With more beaches to choose from here, we settled on Haad Salad in the northwest corner. It felt relatively isolated, but again, we rented a motorbike for two days and checked out the rest of the island.

Koh Phangan felt a bit older and more worn-out when compared to the pristine scenery of Koh Tao. The landscape was drier and the snorkeling wasn’t as great. There were a couple of beaches that were impressive creations of sand, stone, and sea, but they seemed to lack that “wow” factor after coming from Koh Tao. Ko Ma was probably the best with its natural sandbar that leads to a tiny jungle-island with large rocks around the edge. The weather was also overcast with intermittent periods of showers and sun, compared to clear and sunny skies on Koh Tao. It’s hard to complain about an island in southern Thailand (and I’m certainly not), but it was clear which one was our favorite.


After five nights in Koh Phangan we took another ferry and bus trip south to Krabi, on the west coast facing the Andaman Sea. Once in Krabi, we decided to take a quick longtail boat (a big canoe with a motor) around the bay to Railay Beach. We had kept hearing good things about Railay from other travelers and it sounded different from the places we’ve been so far. We also met a German couple that was heading there and became friendly with them over the next few days.

Railay is a small peninsula that sticks out into the Andaman Sea, but has the feeling of an island because it is only accessible by boat. Gigantic limestone formations surround the area to the north making it isolated from motor vehicles and hordes of tourists. It’s only a 5-minute walk from the east beach to the west beach and there are two other beaches adjacent to those, separated by rocks. These limestone faces also make for some of the best rock climbing in the world. The sheer beauty of it all is easily greater than the sum of its parts.

Our first night, we walked to the west beach to watch the sunset. A wide blanket of white sand stretches out beneath limestone faces on three sides with the sun sinking into the water on the fourth. Some locals were throwing a frisbee on the beach and I couldn’t resist joining in. I’ll admit I missed a few throws and catches because I was awestruck by the magnificence of my surroundings. The setting sun changed the colors in the sky from blue to pink to orange to red with an infinite number of shades in between. Sailing a frisbee across the sand encompassed in that environment was a moment I wanted to grasp with both hands and enjoy for as long as possible. The next two nights provided stunning sunsets as well, but neither compared to excellence of the first one.

On the second day, while the sun was still high in the sky, we tried our hand at the rock-climbing that makes Railay so popular. We went for a half-day and did five climbs. The first was only 12m, but the highest took us to 30m. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but it’s much easier knowing you have a harness and are able to relax when you don’t know where you’re next hold is at. Although it was pretty difficult towards the end of each climb, the view from the top made it all worthwhile (even the sore muscles the next day).


Southern Thailand proved to be an impressive display of natural wonders and quite different from the north. It was a bit more expensive for transportation and accommodations, but still cheap by western standards. We both agree that Thailand is a place easy enough for anyone visit and has enough attractions to please any interest. Definitely put it at the top of your list and don’t try to rush through it. We were a bit disappointed at only having 2 weeks for the south, since we entered by land with a 15-day visa, but we met two girls from the US who only had 2 weeks for their whole trip! What a shame… It I’m certainly going to miss the pad thai and papaya salad, but on to Malaysia!

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Kanchanaburi and Chiang Mai…it’s a Thai!

A few days in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok got us eager for the countryside of Thailand. Our first stop was two hours west to Kanchanaburi. Some of you may recognize it as the home to the bridge on the River Kwai. The movie (“The Bridge On The River Kwai”) came out in 1957 and was actually shot in Sri Lanka, but the true location is here in Thailand. There are lots of historical WWII sites in town that are sobering and educational, but tend to level out our otherwise high spirits. I have a feeling there will be plenty more moments like this once we venture to Vietnam and Cambodia.

The main thing to do in Kanchanaburi is to explore outside of Kanchanaburi. We rented a motorbike one day (kinda like a Vespa) and drove 65km up to Erawan Falls. It has seven tiers spanning just over 2km that can be hiked progressively. It took just over an hour to get all the way to the top, which had clear blue water and powdery white stones. There were also fish in the pools that would nibble the dead skin from your feet if you kept them still long enough (a treatment that costs about $5/half-hour in Bangkok massage parlors). We jumped into a couple of the waterfalls on the way back down, but felt a bit rushed because we still wanted to get to the Tiger Temple before it was too late.

The Tiger Temple was founded by a Buddhist monk in 1994 as a forest temple and refuge for wildlife. In 1999, it received its first tiger cub when its mother was killed by poachers. Since then, tigers have been raised and cared for by Buddhist monks. As of May 2012, the total number of tigers has risen to over 100. The amazing thing about it is that since the tigers have been raised by hand around humans, they’re used to being touched and handled without much complaining. They used to roam about freely, like all of the other animals, but due to their population increase and popularity amongst tourist they are now kept on leashes for safety. Also, the only time they are brought to the public is from 12:30-3:30pm (hence the rush from Erawan Falls) when they’re the most sleepy and mild-mannered. Like your typical house cat, tigers sleep around 16-18 hours/day, especially during the afternoon heat.

Some argue that the animals are mistreated and drugged in order to be so docile for tourists. Others claim that this is simply a front for illegal tiger breeding and trade. Because of this, we were a bit hesitant to visit, but decided to see for ourselves anyways. (I mean really, how often do you get to pet a tiger?!) Although we were only there for just over an hour, we didn’t get the impression that they were abused or drugged. They’re just big cats! But there’s no way to know what goes on behind the scenes. Overall, we’re pretty happy we went and only wish we had gotten there earlier to savor this rare opportunity. (see more pics here:

The rest of the day was spent cruising around the countryside and seeing how fast this little bike could go. I think I topped out at 105! (don’t worry mom, it was in km/hr) We even woke up early the next day to watch the sunrise and visit The Cave of the Buddhas before the motorbike was due back at 9am. The landscape in Thailand is beautiful; rolling blue hills set behind fields of cultivated land speckled with bamboo huts. Two days later, I rented a bicycle and rode out to visit The Giant Monkey Pod Tree and soak in the scenery.

Transit from Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai required a pit stop back in Bangkok for a few hours. We hopped on an overnight VIP bus at 9pm and arrived around 6:30am. This bus was by far the nicest we’d encountered so far – double decker, reclining seats, neck pillow, blanket, bottle of water, and snacks in the evening and morning! I can’t tell you what a difference this was from India and Sri Lanka. We were even able to get some sleep during the journey.

Chiang Mai is a backpacker haven with a university atmosphere. Inside the walls of the old city, narrow streets wind their way to a multitude of restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies (most of the time all three in one) filling the space between magnificent Buddhist temples. We arrived on a Sunday, which meant we could experience the Sunday Night Market. Endless booths filled the main streets with everything from clothes to jewelry to artwork and eateries (even a booth with fried insects!). It would be great if we were near the end of our trip and could buy all the wonderful things for sale at ridiculously cheap prices, but we’ve still got a lot to see and every ounce counts when it’s being lugged in a backpack.

Due to the abundance of prepackaged tours with a range of activities we’d been waiting to do, we decided to book an all day tour with the company Chok Chai. It included a little bit everything in a neatly packaged itinerary. We were picked up from our guesthouse around 9am with the first stop being an orchid and butterfly farm. Only 20 minutes of viewing pleasure here, then it was off to the Longneck Hill Tribe village. This was a bit awkward since it is strictly intended for tourists to see how indigenous tribes in northern Thailand and Myanmar live. The women spend days sewing shawls and making knickknacks for tourists to buy, and every little stall has exactly the same stuff. The main attraction is that the women also wear brass rings around their neck beginning from a young age. Over time, the progressive addition of rings elongates the vertebrae and creates an unusually long neck (hence the name of the tribe). It felt almost like a zoo or a museum, but with real people.

Then we were driven the Chok Chai facilities. First, it was a 40 minute elephant ride with the most gentle of giants that couldn’t stop stuffing their faces every few steps. They say an elephant never forgets, but this one didn’t seem to remember when he had his last meal! Then we suited up to go zip-lining through the forest. It only took about 70 minutes, but there were 15 lines and 3 vertical drops – enough to make me satisfied! After lunch we took a ride upstream to go whitewater rafting. The water wasn’t too intense, but there were some exciting moments with twists and drops. From the river, we drove a little bit to a waterfall and had time for a relaxing swim. Then it was back to the Chok Chai grounds to end the day on a slow-moving bamboo raft and enjoy the scenery in the setting sun.

Out of all of this non-stop activity, my favorite part of the day was something that wasn’t even in the itinerary. As we were waiting for the guide to take us on the bamboo raft, some of the other employees were training a 5-year-old elephant for a show they do at night. We got to feed and pet him if he responded properly to the commands. I even played around with his trunk for a bit and he almost ate my hat! To have that sort of interaction with an animal that I’d otherwise never get to be around is one thing that makes traveling to a different part of the world so much fun. Unfortunately, we got the feeling that these animals are sometimes mistreated, unlike at the Tiger Temple. Here, every worker has a 15” stick with a 5” sickle on the end of it that they use to jab into the elephants when they want it to do something. The elephants also spend most of the day with a chain around their foot. One was simply swaying and pacing back and forth in the small area that his chain allowed. They seem so innocent and docile; I don’t know why anyone would want to harm them!

The next day, we planned to rent a motorbike again and see the surrounding area of Chiang Mai. When we went to the front desk to tell them that we’d like to stay an extra night, we were told that there are people coming back from a trekking trip and they need our room for them. Instead of hopping on a motorbike we headed upstairs to pack. Faced with the decision to find another guesthouse or move on to another town, we took this as a sign that our time in Chiang Mai had ended. We went to the bus station and took a twisting, turning, three-hour journey to the quaint bohemian/backpacker town of Pai. We’ve been here since Wednesday and it was the best decision we could’ve made! It’s going to be so hard to leave…

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