Sunday, January 3, 2016

From Thailand back to the States!


It's hard to believe it's been nearly a month since we landed back in the States. Things have been non-stop thanks to all the holidays, but I want to somewhat document the final month of our trip in Thailand while I still can! From the Laos border we headed to the Northern Thai town of Chiang Rai. We only went to four towns this time around, and spent about a week in each. We had never been to Chiang Rai before but really enjoyed our time there. The majority of what we did in Thailand consisted of shopping and eating, but as Thailand has some of the best food and night markets our time was well spent. Chiang Rai had a couple really awesome night markets, they were sprawling and had a lot of really interesting stands. People made everything from their own bath bombs to sandals to repurposed hoodies from the thrift store. We were out late almost every night wandering through the streets with the hundred of locals looking over all the things available for sale. We spent about 5 days shopping and eating in Chiang Rai before heading down to Chiang Mai. We had amazing timing in Chiang Mai as it just so happened that we were there during the weeklong (or so) Loy Krathong/Yi Peng festival --- better known as the lantern festival. It's one of Thailand's most well known festivals and its absolutely stunning to see. For one night during the festival anyone can buy a lantern, light it, make a wish and watch it float up into the atmosphere. We ended up lighting two lanterns -- the first one soared, but we ended up losing track of it around a tree (there are probably thousands floating at once) so we decided to light another. We held this one and let it burn and burn until it nearly started smoking, but it never took off. It struggled a bit and went right into a short tree, luckily we didn't start a fire! Its actually amazing nothing treacherous seems to happen, with thousands a fire-lit lanterns floating in the sky and then slowly making their way back down landing in tress, parks and the middle of streets. Its really a unique sight and an amazing experience to take in - words can barely describe it, you must look at the photos. Another aspect of the festival was the homemade hot air balloon contest. This happened in the daylight and the lanterns got more and more complicated as time went on. They went from classic hot air balloons to ghosts to Hello Kitty to Spongebob (pronounced spunkybap by the Thai commentator). The whole festival is so sun and unique and its so great to see everyone getting so into the celebrations. It was another instance that convinced that asians just love any excuse to party and celebrate - they really have some of the most impressive celebrations I've ever seen. Each night, for three nights in a row, there was a huge parade as well - which included Thai music and dancing accompanying all the floats made by different community groups. There were beauty contests and performances and food everywhere! We spent a little over a week in Chiang Mai enjoying the festival and then exploring the town. I had a great Thai massage by a lady with a little shop tucked away in the back of the local market (halfway through she insisted on getting her nail polish remover and tending to my chipped nails) and we enjoyed checking out the multiple night markets/bazaars Chiang Mai had to offer. They have some of the biggest in all of Thailand, and they do get exhausting, but we were on a mission shopping on finding Christmas gifts and enjoyed market after market. In addition, they have some amazing food stands! One highlight was the cowboy hat lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, she boils pig parts all day and serves it up to you with rice and veggies and its delicious - and she's still cheaper than all the stands surrounding her trying to steal some of her traffic and rip them off. Funny how often that seems to happen... From Chiang Mai we headed up to the mountain/hippie/backpacker loved town of Pai. We weren't sure if we were going to check it out or not but we missed it last time and it is a somewhat famous backpacker town. There are drugs and clubs and western food and tourists lazing around in hammocks everywhere, but its also a beautiful town with a nice feel. We found a nice family owned place to stay and got our own peaceful bungalow overlooking the mountains and rice fields. They served breakfast every morning and there was a great community of fellow travelers, luckily our place attracted people who were there to just relax and have some good conversation and we had lovely breakfasts and talks with our neighbors from Britain,France, the Netherlands, etc. We didn't do much but relax and enjoy our surroundings in Pai, we rented bikes to explore and enjoyed our time - in addition to eating and checking out the night markets of course. From Pai our last stop in Thailand and the trip was Bangkok. We took an overnight bus there and were a little thrown off to be in a huge city again - Laos didnt have much, but after seeing a lady pop a squat in the middle of the sidewalk we were in the mindframe of dealing with big cities again. We happened to be in Bangkok on Dec. 5, the Kings birthday and another major holiday in Thailand. The locals really seem to love their King, everyone was wearing the shirt honoring his birthday and we experienced another big celebration - fireworks, performances, food stands, people celebrating everywhere. It was an interesting thing to see, people really happy and celebrating thier leader - especially in contrast to how the President is thought of in America. We spent a few days around the famous Khao San rd. area of Bangkok, explored the surrounding areas on the river ferry to return to the blind massage place we visited on our last trip 5 years ago and then decided to move into a quieter area of Bangkok and get out of backpacker haven. We found a small place to stay more in central Bangkok surrounded by small shops and stands and were happy to feel more immersed in 'asia' for the last few days of our trip. Bangkok has really advanced in the last few years - the skytrain and subway are as nice and Seoul and the numerous malls are fancy as well. Randomly enough in a huge mall we ran into an American we met in Laos, who was permanently working and living there. It was very random to run into him in a huge mall in Bangkok, especially as he is not on the same "traveller loop" as we were. He was in Bangkok as his wife was expected to go into labor soon and Laos is not the place to do it. According to him the treatment in Laos for anything is a saline drip - so good luck if you break a limb there. He was at the mall looking for a gift for his wife, so we spent an hour together in H&M while i helped him pick out some things i thought were cute. Hopefully she was happy! In Bangkok we soaked up all the Thai food we could and did all the last shopping we could fit in - figuring it would be smarter to buy anything we might need int he next year while we were still in Asia, especially thailand. As Thailand is one of our favorite countries it was a great place to end - and definitely gave us second thoughts about returning home so soon! Nearly nine months later, ha! From Bangkok we flew back to Manila, and then hopped on our flight back - complete with a full day layover in Seoul. Seeing Seoul in December was great - it gets really cold and Korean food lends itself great to that. We enjoyed spicy soups and steaming dumplings on the open air markets. Of course we had to spend one final night in the jjimjilbang, the ultimate refresher for before and after flights. I got the last thing on my travel bucket list checked off - getting scrubbed down the old Korean ladies in the spas. Lets just say after 9 months of traveling and collecting asian gunk I really needed it! Our flight back felt so quick and before I knew it we were in SF and on the Bart (kind ghetto even by asian standards!) and then reunited with my cousin Alex who picked us up, and then aunts and uncles and brothers and friends and parents! Its weird being back to everything that instantly feels so normal again, its almost like you never really left. Im definitely enjoying being back and having a solid place to sleep, but even after only a month i am starting to miss some of the life and excitement and chaos of Asia! It ws an amazing trip and we saw and experienced so much - but when five people and a chicken all riding one on motorbike doesn't seem to phase you anymore I think it is a good time to come home! Onto the adventure here, back in real life!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Laos


Our short time in Thailand consisted of visiting two cities, Buriram and Ubon Ratchathani. Both not really tourist destinations, but we enjoyed the cities and the food! I can now say, at least for the 7 countries weve been in Thailand really does have te best food. In Ubon we had heard that a festival was supposedly going on, Awk Phansa (I've seen it spelled a jillion different ways) which celebrates the end of the rainy season. We weren't sure really what it entailed and no one we found really spoke enough English to explain it to us. We ended up contacting some locals on couchsurfing and ended up staying with an awesome host, Jaa. She is one of those people always going a mile a minute, so high energy and just fun to be around. On her recommendation we checked ou a nearby temple and stumbled into some locals preparing treats for he festival later that day. They had four or five huge pots going of a type of coconut candy. I don't know everything that goes into it, but it's basically a coconut caramel that has to be constantly stirred over an open flame as the consistency changes. It's hard work, but it's a group effort and we were quickly invited in and put to work. It was great to be able to join in with these locals and their celebration, and the end result was so delicious! Later on we might up again with Jaa and headed to the festival. It was huge -- it seems that Asians will take any excuse to celebrate and run with it. There was a lighted boat procession on the river, fireworks going of everywhere, loads of people, traditional thai music and dancing (along with the hip neighborhood bands of young kids), and Muay Thai matches happening all night. It was a lively atmosphere and I was glad we happened to be in town at the right time to see it. The next morning we boarded a bus to pakse, to cross the border into our final country, Laos. Arriving in Pakse, we caught the tail end of their celebrations as well- they were having a boat racing festival to end their weekend celebrations. Though we didn't catch any races (we tried but got too hot waiting for what seemed like forever) we did eat some good food and got to see the Lao people celebrate and have a good time. In moderation of course, the whole country has an 11:00 curfew, which means you have to be back on your guesthouse by 11:30 or risk being locked out! Those crazy communists... From Pakse we decided to ret a motorbike and spend a couple days exploring the Bolaven Plateau. This is an area higher in elevation, which grows the majority of laoatian coffee. There are also numerous waterfalls to explore. The first day we saw 3(?) beautiful waterfalls, the last had a bamboo raft and rope you could use to pull yourself right up under the falls, very cool but scarier than you may expect. The first night we stayed in paksong, the coffee capital of Laos. In the morning we stopped into Jhai coffee, and had a great time talking to the local there, Tao. He had grown up in paksong and had been growing coffee all his life. He said it was a huge transition for him getting hired by this western owned coffee shop and having to learn all the intricacies of brewing. We had a couple pourovers of the different beans, and aero press brews upon his recommendations. They were all delicious, and I wouldn't be surprised if lao coffee gets a lot more popular in the near future. From there, we headed to the village of Tad Lo -- known again for its numerous waterfalls. The village itself is gorgeous. We had a bungalow overlooking the river, complete with hammocks. There were piglets, goats, horses, water buffalo and more all just wandering around the town. I wouldn't be surprised if this place becomes much more of a tourist destination soon. We made a couple more stops along the way to try more coffee while we returned to Pakse. From Pakse we explored a small riverside town, Champassak for one night and then bussed to Savannhaket for a short detour before heading up to Tha Khaek. Lots of cities, I know. Sorry if these have turned more into a list rather than interesting reading. In Tha Khaek we had plans to do another motorbike loop, probably the most well traversed route in Laos, to explore the countryside and the Kong Lo cave, a flooded cave in which you can take a 7 km boat ride through. The loop itself is beautiful, lots of changing scenery, and the typical Laos landscape of amazing green mountains clouded in mist. We made our way through rice paddies, mountains, jungles and more to a small village where we got a peaceful bungalow to spend the night. The next day we made our way to the village of Kong Lo. We got there a dusk was hitting, and settled into a small guesthouse off the main road. We had to walk back through the small village to t to town to find food, and walking through these small houses in the dusk, with smoke rising out of fires, the huge mountains in the background, and the river rushing by your side felt magical. It was such a beautiful place and so special to be seeing this small village. After 8 months of seeing these rural villages it still doesn't quite hit you that this is how these people live day in and day out. Such a different world and life from what I know. The next morning we awakened early to go down to the cave. Seeing the village in full light was quite a view. The mountains surrounding you, reminded me a lot of Yosemite -- instead of the meadows it was just rice fields. We made our way down to the cave, met a Belgian guy who joined our boat, and took off with out trusty guide, Bong. He informed us the power was out in the village, so there would be no light in the cave except for our headlamps. It really was pitch dark. At one point we got out and walked to see some of the cave formations close up, while bong paddled the boat and met us downstream. It was really eerie and almost otherworldly down there -- so dark and it stretched so long. It took close to 90 mins. to reach the end of the cave, which then we got to go back through! A very cool experience, and great stop on our loop. We stopped in one last small town, checked out a swimming hole and then made our way back to Tha Khaek. Four days and 450 km. on the bike complete! From Tha Khaek we caught a bus up to Vientiane, our first big city. It was kind of underwhelming, expensive accommodations, and not a lot of food to try. We ended up spending two nights there before heading up to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is infamous for being the tubing capital of Laos, where once upon a time hundreds of tourists at a time would get wasted and float down the river going from bar to bar. It got quite a bad rap, and the government has really tried to tone down its party image -- all the tourist fatalities probably helped with that. We were debating skipping it, but an 11 hour bus ride to Luang Prabang didn't sound fun, so we stopped off in VV. It's a beautiful spot, it's easy to see why it gained so much popularity. Everything is catered to tourists, which gets old, but is is nice every once in a while. There is western food everywhere, souvenir shops and bakeries, and every restaurant seems to be decked out with low tables and pillows to lounge on instead of actual tables and chairs. Also, for some weird reason all these restaurants seem to just screen reruns of Friends all day long. Walking down the streets there are just loads of these restaurants in a line, and they all have a different episode on. You can hear the laugh track echoing almost everywhere you go. As weird as it is, getting some food and relaxing in the big pillows with a Beer Lao in hand and Friends in the background is a great way to spend time and relax in Vang Vieng. On our last day we did do the infamous river tubing. The party scene really wasn't too bad up until that point, but we actually got our tubes in the morning to have a peaceful float down the river. They bus you up 4 km upstream and it takes just under two hours to float back to town and enjoy the scenery of limestone cliffs all the way back. We actually ended up getting another ride out of town to float back a second time! This time we saw a bigger crowd, still trying to keep the traditions of the past going strong. There are only a couple riverside bars still open -- we just grabbed a couple beers in town to enjoy while floating down the river our second time. From VV we headed to Luang Prabang, one of the most loved cities in Laos. It is an attractive city, quite cleans with a cute little old quarter area -- similar to the feel of Hoi An in Vietnam. Still, we weren't so into it. Lots of western restaurants, not too much interesting local food to be found, the typical attractions of small waterfalls, caves and temples. Kind of the attractions you start to get burnt out on when traveling Asia for so long. We spent a couple nice days there, including Paul's birthday where we drank probably too much lao lao (local rice whiskey) and tried close to every bar in town. We were too full on alcohol to even have a decent meal, so that happened the next day. All in all a nice few days of exploring what the town had to offer. From there we bussed up to the small town of Luang Namtha, close to the Burma and China border. It was an unpleasant 8 or so bumpy hours. We rented a motorbike this morning and are now in a small village, Muang Sing just miles from the Chinese border. It really feels like we are out in the middle of nowhere. The plan to explore some of the villages nearby, get up early and check out the morning market before heading back to luang namtha was a good one. Despite being in such a small town the market was quite large as it is the main market and 'commerce' of the entire region. We really saw the locals in action. The market was divided into two sections, the regular sellers inside with tables and tables of produce, herbs, meat (we saw an entire whole cow head, just bloody and hacked off at the neck) and everything in between. The second part of the market is the village people who come to sell and set up around the perimeter of the market on the ground. They sell their unique produce, homemade lao lao (rice whiskey, which Paul was urged to try at 7 in the morning - 2 shots!) and even locally caught squirrels and rats. Very interesting to see what was being bought and sold -- it was probably one of our favorite markers we've seen, and there have been a lot by this point. After a last night in luang namtha, we were onto our last border crossing back into Thailand! Less than one month until were back in CA!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cambodia!


I'm now writing from a small town in Thailand, called Buriram. So small it's not even in our lonely planet guidebook! I think that's a first -- we crossed the border from Cambodia today, checking out a few towns on our way into Laos. We'll return to northern Thailand as the last stop of our trip. Our time in Cambodia felt like it went by so fast. After our first couple days in Phnom Penh, which I mentioned in our last post, we got on to the real sightseeing. We rented a motorbike and made our way to the Killing Fields at Choung Ek. This was our first in depth look into what really happened during the Khmer Rouge period. You are given headphones and embark on an audio tour explaining the history, and all the gruesome events that took place right where you stand. There are still small shards of bone and pieces of ripped cloth all embedded in the ground. There are mass graves everywhere, huge depressions in the earth once filled with bodies. In the middle of the grounds stands the Memorial Stupa, filled with the skulls and bones of the thousands of men, women and children who were meaninglessly killed. It is one of the most powerful places I have been, there is really no reaction you can really have but to take it all in. The next day we headed to the Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as S-21. This was a school right in Phnom Penh city that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and turned into a prison camp. People were held and tortured here before being sent to the Killing Fields. Of all the people unfortunate to be sent there, today there are only 7 survivors. Walking through the old school, pictures of all the victims are displayed. The KR were meticulous in their record keeping, and everyone was documented. It was haunting staring at all the mug shot type photos of the people tortured. There were many young children, and the hatred in their eyes was heartbreaking to see. Once we were already overwhelmed by the place we walked into the last building, this was where the actual cells were built. Instead of walking into a empty classroom like the other buildings, you walked into a room segmented into tiny cells by either walls built of brick or stone. The spaces were extremely small, with one tiny hole that the guards could look into for observing their prisoners. It was horrible to see and imagine, it made it seem so real. Of course, this was the reality for the country not too long ago. The openness and friendliness of the people today is just incredible. From Phnom Penh we headed south to the small town of Kep. Our guesthouse owner almat convinced us to skip it, and I'm so glad we didn't listen to him. Kep was probably my favorite place in Cambodia. It is still very small, but it's one of those places that you just know tourism is going to hit soon. It's beautiful there, jungles and beaches, and they are famous for their crabs. We had meal after meal if fresh amazing crab, not to mention shrimp and squid, prepared with their equally delicious local pepper. We had our own traditional Khmer style bungalow to stay in, managed by the sweetest guesthouse owner ever -- she was always bringing us fresh fruit and snacks from the land. We had an amazing view of the town and ocean from the guesthouse lounge and just soaked up all the town had to offer. From there we headed about 40 minutes up the road to this town of Kampot. Unlike Kep, Kampot sits on the river rather than the coast. It looks a little underwhelming at first, but it's also a pleasant town to relax and enjoy your time in. We rented bicycles and explored, and rented a motorbike to take an hour drive up to their national park complete with temples and old ruins up in the clouds. A very cool place, somewhat of an eerie ghost town. In Kampot, we also discovered the delicious western food Cambodia has to offer. There's a lot of little caf├ęs, a lot of them benefitting local charities/youth which offer great food. After months and months of Asian food we found ourselves taking advantage of the eggs benedicts, cinnamon rolls and milkshakes they had to offer! After Kampot we had to return to Phnom Penh before making our way to the north of Cambodia. The bus ride back to PP was horrible for me. I found myself feeling super sick and nauseous. All I wanted to do was get off the bus, I didn't care that we were in the middle of nowhere. Somehow I managed through my cold sweat and nausea and we made it. This was after a few tough days in Kampot, somehow while on our motorbike a bee managed to fly right into my hand and sting me while we were driving. The pain was so intense and quick and before I knew it my whole hand was swelling up. It stated big and poofy for a few days and just got itchier and itchier. Anyways, swollen hand abs nausea aside we made or back to the city and spent a few days there -- Paul got to check out some more boxing, I recovered a bit and then we headed up to Siem Reap. The first few days in Siem Reap we laid low, I was feeling a bit low energy still and had no appetite. In reading up on it a bit, I think I may have a slight msg intolerance, as it seems to be especially common in Khmer food -- lots of times you see people with bags of it sprinkling it onto their food! Finally, we got ourselves motivated enough to rent bicycles and make our way to Angkor Wat. We had debated about going or not - it's quite expensive comparatively and we tend to get 'templed out' - but I'm so glad we decided to go. We caught sunset the first day and found ourselves in the middle of a powerful rainstorm while caught in the middle of angkor wat temple, we were soaked and had to cycle back still, but it was absolutely beautiful. The sheer scale of the thing is so amazing, and on top of that every surface is so detailed. I don't know that I've ever seen a place quite like it. The next day we got up bright and early to see the sunrise. From there we continued on, exploring the other temples in the complex. Angkor Thom houses many more structures, my favorite there being Bayon. This temple had huge faces carved into it almost everywhere you look, apparently the faces share a striking similarity to the king at the time of construction. From angkor Thom we jumped back on our bikes and headed to Ta Phrom, this temple is famous for the trees surrounding it, whose roots have grown in and around the temple structure -- it's also famous for having scenes of Tomb Raider filmed there. The trees there are amazing, in many cases there are just massive trees sitting right on top if the temple with their roots spiraling down, I'm still not sure quite how they grow. Ta prohm was cool in general because it's a little more in ruins than angkor wat (which has more or less been in constant use since it was built), you can see the ruins in piles and piles of pure rock in many places in the temple grounds. It was a long day of exploring, temple fatigue does set in, but we saw some really amazing sights. We unwound that day at an awesome tapas bar (more delicious western food) -- with all dishes and cocktails at $1 we had a great feast. From Siem Reap, we headed to our last destination in Cambodia, Battambang. I think Cambodia has a lot to offer, but is still really building up its tourism. We were there in slow season, and Battambang didn't really have much to offer. There is supposedly and interesting art scene abs lots of local galleries, but they all seemed to be closed. We did our best exploring the city and countryside for a few days and then made our way to the border .... And after a whole day of traveling we find ourselves in this small thai town. Only two countries left on this expedition of ours!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Vietnam and into Cambodia!


Vietnam was a country on the top of our list, and we've just finished an amazing month in the country. We started in the north, landing in Hanoi. There are some sights to see there, but mostly it's all about the food (the number one attraction is probably seeing Ho Chi Minh himself, preserved at the mausoleum-- sadly, he was in Russia at the time we were there). Mostly we spent our days wondering around the streets and eating from as many restaurants recommended by lonely planet as possible. The food was good, there's a lot more diversity -- but in general the stuff they offer at home is just as good. After about a week or so of hanging out in Hanoi and enjoying the Old Quarter, we headed south to the town if Ninh Binh. One thing we didn't realize before we arrived was how huge the country was. Originally we had planned to go into Northern Vietnam as it looks incredibly beautiful, but found out it would involve at least 6 hours on a bus and a lot more time than we had anticipated to really explore and do it justice. Thus, we decided to just head south to Ninh Binh (skipping even famed Halong Bay). In the end Ninh Binh was a beautiful alternative, think Halong Bay on a river instead of the ocean. We took a 2 hour boat ride through the canyons there, surrounded by green limestone karats, and weaving in and our of numerous caves. You really had to be aware of your surroundings, or else your head would have been pegged by one of the many stalactites. It was really beautiful and one of the most special experiences of the trip. From Ninh Binh we hesitantly jumped on our first overnight bus down to the town of Hue. We'd heard lots of horror stories about these buses - crazy, drugged drivers crashing, luggage stolen, being packed in like sardines, being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, etc. Our ride was surprisingly nice! Much better than any Greyhound, that's for sure. You have your own little seat/capsule that leans back and lots of leg room to sleep. With the aircon and wifi, it makes for a comfy ride. We arrived in Hue about 12 hours later, were happy to find our bags, and went on our way. The town of Hue didn't really have too much to offer. The big draw is the Citadel, which houses a lot of the old buildings from the ancient ruling class. Up until recently it was pretty neglected, not taken care of, until they realized they could fix it up and tourists would pay to enter. We did a lot of just ranting bicycles there and exploring. Our guesthouse, Hue Boutique Hotel, was amazing though and the ladies really went out of their way, especially considering our $7/night room. From there we headed to Hoi An, many peoples favorite area if Vietnam. The town has an old feel, similar to Hanoi's Old Quarter. This is the picturesque town you often see, complete with old streets filled with red lanterns. We had a mission there, as Paul was intent on gettibg a custom suit made. The whole process was quite interesting, you pick out your fabric, your lining, buttons -- everything! It really is crazy to see how quickly they can put together the shell of your suit, sane day in some cases. After a bad start -- a tailor who didn't really listen nor seem to really understand a modern slim fit -- he ended up ditching the first suit and getting a refund. Each fitting seemed like such a fight to try and get them to understand what he wanted. He'd done a lot of research into tailors and reviews before arriving, but once he had already started the process we were walking by a shop whose samples really impressed up --- long story short the first suit was a bust, but he ended up with two amazing suits from the tailor we just happened to pass by, Oche. Each fitting went so smoothly, and they were so critical of their own work-- but stopping until it was perfect. If anyone wants a custom suit, I'd highly recommend them as you can send in your measurements and work with them online. We spent a total if 6 days in Hoi An, dealing with the suits, enjoying the town and eating lots of banh mi. The first day we went to a spot that we loved, and later found our it was the same banh mi place Anthony Boursin visited -- so refreshing to see a place touched by that show that is still doing quality food without inflating their prices! I've never been so close to thinking I've found the best of something I the world as I was with that banh mi -- we ate there everyday (sometimes multiple times) and never got sick of it! Close to Hoi An we visited the Marble Mountains. Very cool place -- I was drawn to it as lonely planet described one cave there which descends down into the earth, complete with creepy lighting and decor -- reminiscent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting - his depiction of hell in 'The Garden if Earthly Delights' had always fascinated me. I couldn't resist stepping into it in real life-- it was absurd and creepy and awesome. The Marble Mountains offer lots of spots and caves to explore -- one being a hold place, you descend down a flight of stairs down into the cave, and find yourself in a huge open space, being guarded by a huge stone Buddha at one end. To me, it was an amazing spot, with a very special feel. I wasn't expecting it and it made me realize how funny it is that some places are so hyped for whatever reason -- and then there's places like this which don't really seem to be talked about at all, but can easily be just as amazing. 6 days and 2 suits later, we left Hoi An and headed to Nha Trang, a beach/party town seemingly overrun by Russians. Apparently it's a vacation spot for them. It ended up that we would be here for my birthday, and we ended up hitting up the hot springs to celebrate. I've always wanted to try a mud bath and it was awesome. Luckily, being low season we had a little mud pool by ourselves to soak in. From there we moved on to an aromatherapy mineral bath, nice and relaxing to wash off all the renaming mud that we had let harden on us. We spent the whole day relaxing there, enjoying the mineral pool (it was at the mist perfect warm temperature to relax you, but not get you too hot) and enjoying drinks and snacks poolside -- sometimes the luxury you can get away with in Asia for such a little cost in insane! We had plans for dinner, but that spot ended up being closed -- instead we found a small Armenian cafe with lots on interesting little dishes to try, tapas style. I'm general, Vietnam feels very European lots of the time, which really makes it a special place and sets it apart from other countries in SE Asia. From there we headed to Dalat, Paul was looking forward to it the whole trip -- as it's a mountain town, in a totally different climate known for its cold temperatures. Indeed, we arrived early in the morning and it was cold and raining. We settled into one of the first pho places we passed on the way to our guesthouse and enjoyed a delicious, steaming bowl. After that we sat and had some coffee enjoying the cold weather and the rain coming down. Dalat has an awesome night market to explore, and just a nice feel in general. Very European once again. It was a nice place just to pass time. We ended up doing one hike to the highest peak there, Langbiang mountain. It is crazy as it starts off hiking through a nice pine forest, crisp atmosphere, just like at home --- then in transitions quickly into jungle and rainforest, with vines and mud and rain coming down on you. Really two different hikes -- you kind of have the nice, relaxing hike through the pine forest, and then move into more extreme, mud covered hiking. Both are fun, but I kind of miss my pine and redwood forests! Our next stop was Mui Ne, another beach town known for it's surfing and sand dunes. Unfortunately it wasn't quite surf season, so we embraced the sans dunes -- I got to sled down them which is something I've always wanted to do. Playing in the sAnd, running up and down the hills, and being totally encrusted really makes you feel like a little kid. Not to mention the dunes are incredibly beautiful, just another amazing landscape the country has to offer. Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Once again, one of our main focuses was food, Hcmc being known as one of the great eating cities of the world. The other highlight there was visiting the War Remnants Museum and seeing the devastating effects of the Vietnam (what they call the American) War. There is not much to say other than feeling frustrated and disappointed by your own government. The whole month I felt some guilt as an American in Vietnam -- many times we would tell people we were from Canada. War has many sides, people always make mistakes --- but the fact that this war went on so long, 17 yrs., seems really unacceptable. Many parts of the museum displayed the many American weapons utilized, and yet the Vietnamese were still able to be victorious, thanks to their ingenious underground tunnels and fighting techniques. It wax a nice end to our time in the country to really understand what had gone on there. From HCMC we headed to Cambodia by bus. The land crossing was stressful as it was our first one and we didn't know what to expect. Pretty much it included a lot of trusting your non English speaking/semi sketchy bus driver, giving him your passport and a lit of money for your visa and hoping everything went how it needed to go with no explanation from him as to what was going on. It was a lot of waiting in rooms, hoping you'd see your passport/bus again. I was stressed out, Paul's take was that everyone else had done the same thing so potentially we could revolt. All in all it went smoothly, we may have been overcharged $5, but I can live with that! Now we are in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is another country, similar to Indonesia, that I have no expectations of - I just don't know what to expect. I'm still confused by the food, it seems to be a mix if everything so far --- but the people are incredibly friendly and nice. It is amazing, especially once you factor the horrendous events of their not too distant past in. Today we visited the Killing Fields, and learned more about the Khmer Rouge genocide and everything that took place under Pol Pot. Walking around there, you still see bone fragments and clothing shreds on the ground, the depressions from the mass graves are still very present. It is heartbreaking, and really feels unbelievable that this all happened not too long ago. Yesterday, we met a friendly local, Song Hai, and ended up spending the day with him and his friend, a fellow Californian, Aron. At one point Song Hai (a former monk turned tuk-tuk driver) started telling us about some of the hardships in his family, all with a smile and laugh. Aron quickly added -- the thing about Cambodians us they will all always laugh and smile at you, but most if them have a really sad story. He also reminded us of the fact that 50% of the population is under 25, thanks to the Khmer Rouge. It really is quite amazing to see how the people have chosen to move on from such a dark past. They ate incredibly friendly, which can be seen in the amazing day we spent with Song Hai -- this was our second day in the country and we've never been welcomed in by the locals so fast. We took the tuk-tuk out to catch some Cambodian boxing, followed by beers and food with our new friends. I still have no idea what our time in Cambodia will bring, but after these three days I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Korea


From PI we headed to Korea, our only planned detour from Southeast Asia. Arriving in Korea felt like such a luxury compared to Southeast Asia! The streets were clean, no trash to be seen, very little trash. Our first night we got in late and returned right to the jjimjilbang scene - naked Koreans again! Not to mention amazing spa facilities, the perfect stop to refresh and rest after a plane ride. The next day we had plans to meet Paul's brother, Michael, joining us from his own travels in Portugal. We headed to Itaewon for some craft beer, another luxury of Korea, and missed him due to his newly discovered punctuality and our still running on 'island time'. The next day we finally met up, did some exploring, checked out the amazing Gwangjang Market (stalls and stalls of delicious, made from scratch Korean food as far as you can see) and proceeded to eat and rink a bunch of Korean specialities for a few days until the real adventure started and we met the rest of Paul's family Gangnam, I was lucky to be able to accompany them on their Woo family tour of Korea, thanks to Paul's grandma. I had heard stories of their previous tour in Korea, but still wasn't quite prepared for everything that was to come. We met me at the COEX hotel, one of the fanciest hotels I've ever been in (much less stayed in) and everything continued from there. In addition to the posh places we stayed at (most recently Paul and I were staying in less than immaculate windowless cement boxes in PI) I had to get used to the schedule of the tour, which Paul assured me was a packed one. After our first day of luxury in Gangnam we were to get up (by 6, I believe) enjoy the amazing hotel brunch buffet and catch a flight to out first destination, Jeju Island, Korea's own little Hawaii. From Jeju the tour really started, we were whisked to coastal views, treks, museums, green tea and tangerine farms, acrobatic circuses (remember that Simpsons episode where Homer, I think, rides a motorcycle in a 360 loop in a metal ball at the fair? -- picture that with 5 Koreans simultaneously) and even a teddy bear museum. Just in case you wanted to see a lifesize Obama teddy bear ... We were led by our trusty tour guide, Hans, through all this. I appreciated his way of talking down everything we were about to see right before we saw it ("I've seen the circus once, once is enough" / "You have 45 minutes here, you really only need 10" in addition to the way all his stories seems to revolve around toilets. I also enjoyed how he needed to answer everything being the tour guide, when obviously he has no idea. "What are those, Hans?" -"Buildings". / "What is that dragon holding?" -"Um, a dragon ball." From Jeju, we caught a flight to Busan, Koreas second largest city. We had a good exploration of the local fish market, I had a local make fun of me for being scared of their huge tarantula-esque (in my eyes) crabs and then we had some free time to explore while Paul and Michael indulged me and accompanied me to a dog cafe I spotted. Hans had randomly mentioned these and I knew I had to find one. All over Korea are dog cafes, where you can bring your dog, or just go to play with the dogs they have there. We walked up the stairs, heard the dogs barking, opened the door to the stench of urine, ordered our beers, sat down and were immediately surrounded by dogs. They are on your table and climbing into the booth next to you, wagging tails and trying to lick your face. It's all super absurd, and it was way more intense dog wise than I was expecting. One of those 'only in Asia' experiences for sure. We made the most of the weirdness and enjoyed our time there, savored our beers, and made sure not to touch any of the complimentary snacks they out out for you in an open basket .... Definitely felt like not eating anything there was the right call. From Busan it was a whirlwind, hard even to remember all the towns we made our way through, but I believe we went from there to Daegu, Gyeonju (sp?) and Seorak-san mountain. There were lots of views, museums, beautiful mountain temples to see along the way. Seorak-san park was definitely a highlight, it was nice to get to hike a little and experience all of the amazing nature we'd been seeing. Korea is amazingly green and mountainous, and the nature is really respected and treasured. We hiked up to a temple in the mountain, one of the monks was singing and he had one of the most beautiful, soothing voices I've ever heard. It was amazing to be up in that beautiful area and just enjoy listening to his voice. From there, the tour made its way back to Seoul. We had a free day to shop and see family, then went on a city tour of Seoul. We had a new guide, who was so tightly wound it was hilarious. At one stop Paul went in for a bathroom break (he can't be rushed during those times) and I though the guide was going to burst a blood vessel while waiting for him ... I'm still not sure what his rush was, all I know is he ran a tight ship on his tour. The last day of the tour with the family, we went up to the DMZ, to get a glimpse into North Korea. Once you get to the actual border the atmosphere really changes, it feels way more tense and strained than I was expecting. North Korean soldiers are everywhere, never responding to you, but looking as serious as they can. Tourists take photos with them and they stand still and the whole scene is quite absurd, everyone is playing their part and it feels like stepping into a movie scene or something. You are able to go into the 'blue house' on the border, in the middle of it is the long table where meetings take place, and once you pass that you can officially say you are in North Korea. Very interesting place, and really very few places like it in the entire world. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the family, the tour was an amazing experience. I felt so lucky to not only have seen all tithings we saw, but to be included in the family vacation so warmly. It really was nice to have that a few months into our trip. After the tour we spent another week or so in Seoul with Michael, just exploring the city -- it's huge and there's so many distinct little neighborhoods .... We even had a legit Korean clubbing experience with Paul's cousins. It didnt end until 5am rolled around in a karaoke bar, as it should. After our week in Seoul we parted ways with Michael and made our way to jeonju, about 2 or so hours directly south of Seoul. We were going there as we were attending a meditation retreat in the area (more in that later) and wanted to use the opportunity to explore another Korean town. Jeonju ended up being one of our favorite places we visited. Our first day there we were looking at a map trying to find a restaurant, a local asked us if we needed help, and he needed up having lunch with us. And joining us for an informal half day tour of the city. Jeonju has an amazing 'tradition hanok village' full of history and museums and a bunch of Koreans really stoked about being Korean. There are young people all around who rent the traditional cloths and wear them all day, the whole place has a lively energy -- it feels a bit like Disneyland, just without e rides if that makes any sense. Jeonju is also known for its magkeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine, which I really like but Paul doesn't care for. We ventured into a bar one big after a nice dinner for a drink or two, and found it packed with Koreans, some very inebriated. We sat down, the waiter gave us a second to look at the menu and be confused and then just asked if we wanted magkeolli. We said yes, and the night began. He comes back with a huge pot full of the stuff, a teapot bigger than my head, with a little plate of veggies to have with it. We were both surprised/delighted by the size of the pot. We thought the veggies were strange drinking food, but went with it, a couple minutes later the waiter returns with 20 or so small dishes he begins piling onto every spare inch of our table. Mind you, we had already eaten and these dishes were intense. Snails and worms intense, along with a bunch of to her things we had no clue about. We went with it the best we could, took in the scene, and quickly coined that place the 'magkeolli dungeon'. The next day out clothes still reeked of fish and all the weird stuff that gets consumed in that place. From here, we totally switched gears. We had signed up to take part in a 10 day silent meditation, in the Vipassana style. Paul had been thinking of doing this for a while, and was keen on the idea of doing it in his homeland. I was open to it, interested more than anything, and thought it would be a great thing to do pretty much exactly halfway into out trip- perhaps open our eyes and the way we experience all these places were visiting. It was an intense 10 days, but went faster then I thought. Each day being with a wake up bell at 4:30 am, which is to be followed by 2 hours of meditation. The day continues on like this, with some breaks for melas and free time. Out of the 17 hour day ending at 9:30 I calculated that 10 of those hours are to be spend meditating. Very intense, but you are guided and have different things to work on each day. Everything builds on itself, it's very interesting -- you have nightly discourses which touch in the meditation itself as well as the philosophy, and I quite appreciated what a scientific approach these talks seemed to have --- not entirely just a touchy feely feeling the positive vibes sort of meditation. It's an experience hard to describe, and though it was hard I'd recommend it to anyone interested. I knew every little about it going in, which I recommend. Definitely a sort of once in a lifetime week. From jeonju we headed back to seoul, after the meditation ended we had about three free days before we were to fly to Vietnam. The first day back into the real world was quite strange, you notice so much and I really felt like an outsider observing the rest of the population around me. I remember I had such a hard time using the atm that first day out, it seemed so foreign! We spent our last days in Seoul, got to meet up with Michael again, went out drinking with some of the people from the meditation ( somewhat funny as drinking is a no no to a serious Vipassana meditator) and had an amazing dinner with Paul's uncle. It was a great end to our adventure in Korea. We did so much, and I know I haven't been able to pay it all justice, but it was an amazing time. .... With this ,I'm caught up with my blogging as best as I can do -- we are currently enjoying Vietnam and it's absolutely beautiful. You will hopefully hear about it all soon enough!!!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Visayas!


I'm going to do my best to catch up on the last two to three months of our travel. From Indonesia, we returned to the Philippines for about another month and a half to conquer the Visayas. We'd be meeting my Auntie Aida there and Uncle Abel, but had a couple days before catching up with them. From Manila, we fly straight to Cebu and headed for the beach town of Moalboal nearby. It's a nice quiet town, and was a good introduction to Cebu. We spent a couple days there relaxing and snorkeling, then decided to rent a motorbike to ride around the entire southern tip of Cebu. One of our first destinations was Oslob, where the main attraction is swimming with the oceans largest fish, the whale shark. The entire operation is kind of a shit show, there are so many boats full of locals and foreigners alike. Everyone's thrashing about in the water (Filipinos seem to be deathly afraid of the ocean, go figure) and once a whale shark appears for feeding all hell breaks loose. Everyone tries to get their selfies in, and seem to miss out on really watching these amazing creatures -- but it's all part of the experience I guess. From Oslob we continued up the coast, we attempted a day long hike traversing the island of Cebu from Osmena Peak, our second destination, to the popular KAwasan falls, but after refusing a guide (they always rush you) and repeatedly getting lost we gave up and headed back to the peak. Osmena Peak is absolutely beautiful, and we spent lovely night camping there before retuning to our motorbike and riding to the falls. The bike was a great way to see the island, and we learned our favorite way to see things in PI -- no hassles to deal with, and you get to go at your own pace. After our little Cebu adventure it was finally time to meet Aida and Abel, we'd been looking forward to seeing familiar faces the entire time, and couldn't wait to meet up with them and get our real tour of the VIsayas. We met up at the mall, chewed down at the buffet and started making plans. We were going to spend the day looking at condos (amazingly affordable), having dinner with more family and friends and the next day we'd catch the ferry to the island of Leyte, where'd we'd visit my Auntie Lourdes in Palompon, and then head on to Villaba, my Grandmas hometown. We spent one last day exploring Cebu with Aida, Abel and my Auntie MItchelle -- who took it on herself to be our own private tour guide of Cebu. We caught the night ferry to Leyte, and found ourselves on the doorstep of my Auntie Lourdes around 3 in the morning. She had fallen asleep, and we were caught outside for a while, but eventually found ourselves in her home... I found it crazy how similar it was to my own Grandmas home in Sacramento. After resting there a few hours we headed on to VIllaba, stopping to surprise a family friend, Marisel along the way. She was the first of many people we'd meet who were so welcoming and kind, and so tied to the family and community that still exists in Villaba. It seemed that almost everyone we met in that town was a relative in some way, or some close friend of the family. It was really an amazing place to be, and I'm so grateful to my aunt and uncle for showing us around there. We were able to stop by the site of my Auntie PApings house -- this is a place I've heard so much about. It was where my mom stayed when she visited PI and was the meeting place of the family for so many years. Unfortunately, it now needs to be seriously rebuilt and it was destroyed in the typhoon. Nevertheless, it was amazing to be at that site -- I felt as if I was visiting some kind of museum of my family history. We only spent a few days in Villaba, though I did try my first balut under reassurance of some of the local family that it was a good one. Paul on the other hand probably had about 5 or so balut in one night (Uncle Abel had bought a bag of 25!) which about 4 people polished off with 7 liters of beer -- an epic Filipino drinking nite at its finest. From Villaba we headed back to Palompon, and spent a couple days with Auntie Lourdes and Uncle Doming who was back from Cebu. It was nice to spend some time with them, look through old photos, and be showered with food from Filipino grandparents. From there, the family tour continued -- we returned to Cebu and met up again with MItchelle. She ended up hosting us for almost two weeks in her lovely home -- we weren't expecting it, but it was greatly appreciated and just the recharge we needed after 3 months or so of traveling. She took us on lots of sightseeing around the city, nights out drinking, and even karaoke. When we weren't doing that, we pretty much did nothing -- 'hibernating' as she called it, and it was great. A couple days stretched to a week to almost two weeks, and we enjoyed just being in Cebu and spending time with her and her family. It was fun and comfortable, and really so special to be able to spend so much time with family you've never even met before! When we finally left Cebu, we headed to the island of Bohol. There is some beautiful nature there and we wanted to see it. We made a day of seeing the famed Chocolate Hills, hundreds of perfectly shaped hills -- much like the Chocolate HIlls world in Mario ... Google the actual ones and you'll see what I mean. They are so strange and beautiful, and it seems like no one has a set reasoning for how they got the way they are. We also saw the tarsier, thought to be the worlds smallest primate, though I think they are actually rodents. After a long day of sightseeing, we need up in a small town -- which I'm forgetting the name of. We were checked into our room by a neighbor, and were told the towns fiesta was going on and that the guesthouse owner had invited us over for dinner to celebrate. We rested up and headed over to a house full of people and a big feast, complete with lechon. We had a great meal, and an even better night conversing the locals and our guesthouse owner, an older man who seemed to be a big figure in the community. The generosity was amazing and we were invited over the next day as well, to celebrate the ongoing fiesta. The next morning we got up early and went for a walk along the river, we noticed a family up early roasting their lechon for the days festivities. On the way back we stopped and asked if we could take a picture and were invited to join the party and wait to have taste once it was done roasting. The fiesta vibe of the whole town was amazing, so many open people -- it was amazing to see the ritual of the family roasting this entire pig, not to mention being invited to partake in trying it. This was a small family living by the river, very modest housing, they had saved up to buy this pig and feed it the previous month so that they could have it for the fiesta. Quite different from our huge meal the previous night hosted by a large family, and it was great to see both sides. We spent a few hours by the river with them, talking, eating and drinking glass after glass of tuba, coconut wine. These are the best experiences while traveling, being totally invited in by locals, and it was a fiesta not to be forgotten! We spent the evening back at the guesthouse owners fiesta, and went to bed full and happy! Our last stop in Bohol was Alona Beach, this is where a lot of the rain caught up with us, but we happily spent our days sipping beers under the cover of umbrellas at the bar. From Bohol we headed to the small island of Siquijor. It's known for being a little spooky, having its own versions of witches and voodoo and concoctions whipped up in 'cauldrons'. We may have seen a little of that, but just spent our days enjoying the island, riding a motorbike around the entire thing. The Philippines has beautiful island after beautiful island, it's incredible really and one can only do their best to take it all in. From Siquijor we headed to our final island, Negros. This was one of our favorite in PI. The main town of southern Negros, Dumaguete was by far the nicest big city we visited of the Philippines. It was clean and pleasant, just nice to spend time in. There is a lot of nature not far from Dumaguete, and we rented a Bike to spend our days exploring the beaches for snorkeling, soaking in the natural hot springs and jumping from waterfalls. Trying to get to the waterfall was our biggest adventure, as the river was at full force with the rain. We had to cross a few times and al it's had to turn around, but finally made it and the effort was well worth it. Casaroro falls was tall and powerful and it was quite exhilarating to be at the bottom of it. From Dumguete we headed up to Bacolod, our last stop in PI. It was a big city, so we quickly escaped and headed up to a nature park to camp for our last couple days in the country. I forget the name of the place now, but it felt like the PI version of Yosemite. Campground and lodges, restaurants and different facilities all in a beautiful surrounding. Our favorite was the hot springs, which were really boiling ... At night you could watch the bats flying all through the sky. These quiet days of camping ended out our time in the Philippines -- the Visayas was our favorite part, and on top of it being beautiful and a little more laid back we got to spend some unforgettable time with family. I did my best at recounting it here, as it's been a while ... It was incredible to be in the Visayas where so much of my family has roots, and if anyone is reading this that we spent time with there, thanks so much for taking us in and adding to the experience -- it will stick with us forever!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The train to Yogyakarta provided another chance to meet some friendly people. We ended up spending the majority of the 6 hour train ride talking to a young man who had actually studied in Fresno of all places. Needles to say he had good English from living in the states, and had a lot of interesting facts to share. He informed us a little bit about the history regarding religion on Bali vs Java. Apparently, Java used to be primarily Hindu, like Bali, but after one too many volcano eruptions the people decided their religion wasn't working out too well for them and changed to Muslim. This is why the famous ruins of Borobodur and Prambanan exist on the Muslim island. We also learned a little bit more about the many volcanoes, and the villages surrounding them. I had been unable to get a clear answer as to whether or not the people can tell when one of the volcanoes is about to erupt - he informed us that every volcano has a sort if volcano guru, an elder and very respected figure in the town whose job it is to take care of the volcano. They have a special relationship with it, and are the ones responsible for evacuating the villagers should the need arise. One of these elders became very famous after successfully evacuating his entire village. However, as it is important to be loyal to your volcano he apparently chose to stay put throughout the entire time the volcano was erupting and ended up dying. Very interesting glimpse into how these matters are dearly with here, vs. how they'd be fealty with at home. In the end, Yogyakarta was an ok stop. I feel like the town has a bit of a hippy, natural reputation in the west -- we were expecting something like Ubud, but didn't get that. For the most part Yogya is a big city, full with scams, and lots of life. The food is sweeter here, which we didn't really care for, but they do offer kopi jos, coffee which is served by plunking a few pieces of hot charcoal in at the end. This was quite good, and gave your coffee a nice, smoky flavor. We rented bicycles and spent a few days in the town, exploring the sultans palace, enjoying some dance and the local tradition of puppet shows, checking out the depressing bird market (where animals of all sorts are caged up which shouldn't be -think woodpeckers and owls), and just hanging around. One of the most interesting things we came across was the night carnival, we had no idea what to expect and entered a lively scene with a parade of led adorned vw shells, which you could rent and drive around. Only in Asia. Another cool part of the culture in Yogya, were the night time lesehan restaurants. Around 10 at night all the street vendors pack up, and these restaurants set up. The sidewalk changes from being filled with t shirts and souvenirs to crowds of people sitting on mats and eAting local foods with their hands -- most commonly a combination of fried chicken, sambal, rice and fresh veggies. It was very cool to see the scene change so quick and watch everyone just sit down and hang out in the middle of the sidewalks -- another only in Asia thing. From Yogya we hopped on a flight to Sumatra, to go to the jungle town of Bukit Lawang. The goal here was to do some jungle trekking and see some wild orangutans. We got so much more than we were hoping for. Sometimes you come across places when you travel that are overwhelmingly special, and Bukit Lawang was one of these places. It was nice to find it, as it was a place we'd never heard of before -- really just a jumping off point to the orangutans. So far, it's a place at the top of the list for both Paul and I -- and won't be surprised if it turns out to be a favorite of the entire trip. Amazing jungle treks and wildlife aside, we made a lot of friends, and ran into someone friendly we knew almost everytime we left our room. The locals are incredibly welcoming and warm, and all just a little bit crazy. It's hard to explain the feeling of being in Bukit Lawang, but I can try. The first thing we did was jump right into our jungle trek. We had a group of 6, with two local guides. Half the group was trekking two days, Paul and I and a traveler from Switzerland, Stephan, were trekking three days, which meant 2 nights camping in the jungle. Not 15 minutes into our trek a large black gibbon emerged from the trees and started coming for us, fast. He stopped a sat on a vine right in front of me, then quickly grabbed for a banana stuck down deep in one if Stephan's pockets. A couple seconds later and he was back in the trees with the banana, Stephan never feeling a thing. We then caught a couple glimpses of some orangutans high up in the trees and continued trekking to get some better views. Seeing the orangutans in the wild was really amazing, they move slow and are very graceful. They make some of the weirdest movements climbing the vines and moving between trees and it's so cool to watch their muscles as they move. The park we were in, Gunung Leuser National Park, has both wild orangs (shyer and harder to find) and semi-wild who may have been rehabilitated and are more used to/seek out human interactions. Two of the most famous orangutans there are Minna and Jackie. Minna is notorious for attacking over 100 guides, our own guide, Wong, had the scar to prove it. Minna has a bad habit of demanding food from the guides, when age doesn't get it she's aggressive. We came upon a spot and our guide directed us to one area, while our other guide, Jefri, called for Minna. She descended from the trees, baby on her back, to be fed. Ideally these creatures should be fully wild and live in the trees while finding their own food, but seeing one close up on the ground was a sight to remember. She was huge, and it was powerful to see her walk. After she descended and was happily being fed by Jefri, we were able to come closer for a better look. She kept holding out her hand as she was given one banana after another. At one point she looked at the ground, found a piece of trash, picked it up handed it to the guide. When the bananas stopped she started to get up and head towards us, at which point we were told to quickly retreat and not look back. A pile of fruit was left to distract her as we made our escape. Jackie, on the other hand, is a little but different. Unfortunately, we only saw her nest. She is famous for holding hands, or coming from behind and bear hugging tourists, sometimes for up to an hour at a time. A group we talked to said she took a liking to a Spanish girl, held her hand and then made a gesture for her to get on her back. Jefri informed us you have to barter with her sometimes, "10 bananas, and then let my client go." The nights camping were almost as fun as spotting the wildlife. The guides are all so funny and clever, they have such high energy and are a little monkey-like themselves. The night was full of laughs, games, singing and jungle tricks -- they all have their own riddles and tricks they like to share with tourists. It's most fun to see then react to you figuring out their games, then actually playing the games themselves. The nights were spent in some semi-covered, but mostly open air shelters by the river. Amazingly, there were no mosquitoes and the three days we spent in the jungle were lovely-- and a lot more comfortable than id been expecting. At the end of the trek, you return to town by 'rafting'. This consists of three or four inner tubes tied together, depending on how many people you have (Paul and I shared a tube). Your guide sits in front and navigates through some quite huge rapids, all while screaming at the top of his lungs and seemingly freaking out. He has a long bamboo stick to steer and push off the bottom of the river with, sometimes digging in so deep it looks like it's about to crack. As the passenger, you happily bounce and bump along down the river, feeling all the rocks you're bouncing along on top of, if the river happens to be a tad low that day. All in all it's a fun experience, and a fitting end to the adventurous, though maybe not the safest, trek. When you return from your trek a jungle party is the normal protocol -- we were staying at Bukit Lawang Indah, a sort of hangout spot for all the guides. At night guitars come out, all the guides seem to be musically inclined, and the whole place breaks out into the highest energy, most positive sing along you can imagine. Western and Indonesian songs are played, with some Bukit Lawang twists. The most famous is the jungle trek song, set to the tune of jingle bells. Other popular ones are Hotel California, "welcome to the hotel Bukit Lawang", the expected Bob Marley songs, classic rock galore. The happiness of the locals is infectious, which makes for the special atmosphere of the entire town that I'm trying to convey. Past midnite the guides were still going and decided to move the music and party out to a bonfire. Another hour later and most the tourists are gone to bed, and the guides are still going strong with more showing up. Any thought that this is a show for the tourists is clearly not true -- these are just some lively people, who can somehow endure these late night jungle parties most nights of the week. Walking through town, we'd often encounter people from the night before, have a nice conversation, or be offered some company for a walk. It was really nice to have some new friends, and almost feel at home being able to walk through town and chat with people. We ended up staying a bit over a week, and our guide Jefri swung by our room many times just to hang out. We also ended up going on another little mini trek with another friend, Felix, in which we saw more great wildlife. Felix really has an impressive sixth sense, jungle sense, as he calls it and we probably saw as much with him in a few hours (including a wild male orangutan up close) as we did on our entire other trek. It was very cool to be in a smaller group, and "hunt" for the animals in the wild. I'm really grateful for our time in Bukit Lawang, the people accepted us with open arms and by staying longer we really got the feel of integrating into the special community, something I love to experience while traveling. In addition to that, during our time there is when I learned about everything that was happening with poor jake. Mom had taken him in because he was limping, the vet told her he had 3 compressed discs and would need surgery. Mom, Kevin and I came together saying we'd help pay for his surgery and do whatever she needed in terms of helping him recover. Things quickly took a turn for the worse, he was found to have a fast growing, untreatable form of cancer -- a tumor was likely the cause of his spinal issues, rather than the discs. I will not forget being deep in a random jungle in Sumatra, trying to block out the sounds of the river, while on the phone with mom and being told the news. A day before I was feeling hopeful about his surgery, he'd always been so healthy, now he basically had no options, his pain was getting worse, and the vet just needed the ok. I was shocked and stunned talking to mom, but the second I hung up just started balling, Paul joined too without even needing to be filled in on the details. "I love that dog", is pretty much all he said, while I just agreed and cried. It was such a hard time, and would have been a lot harder if I wasn't surrounded by all the positive people of Bukit Lawang. The next morning I took some time by myself to sit by the river, Jefri came over first to try and make me smile, while our camp chef hung around in the back singing 'no woman, no cry.' The first day was tough, it was the second day of our trek -- but fortunately we were doing a pretty challenging route along the river. Scrambling up the slippery rocks and logs while trying not to get washed away downstream took a lot of concentration, and it was helpful to just have to focus on taking one step after the other. Being in the quiet, peaceful jungle was one of the best places I could be to just have some time to think and absorb everything. The whole trek was all about the observation and appreciation of the animals to be found, which led itself nicely to thinking about jake. I wish I could have been with him those last days, but being where I was is probably the best alternative I could imagine. Here's to you jake, I was imagining you beside me in jungle the whole time, although I know you'd probably hate it there <3.