Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Trip In Review

Carlsbad, California - Well we've been home now for a few months and in some ways the trip seems long ago and in others it feels like it was just yesterday that we were hopping on buses and moving from town to town.

It was a wonderful trip with many more high points than low points so without further ado here are the highlights and lowlights:

Favorite Cities:

Singapore - Multicultural, great food, easy to get around, great food, excellent shopping and oh did I mention the great food?

Saigon, Vietnam - Very cool city, cosmopolitan, good sites, good food, nice mix of the modern and old school.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Might be a bit of a surprise to be on the list but again great food (do you sense a pattern), a gritty feel to it, sobering historical sights like the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng, friendly people as with everywhere in Cambodia

Favorite Towns:

Hoi An, Vietnam - Full of tourists but just like Venice, one can see why. Very cute town, nice restaurants, good market, great cooking school, very chill place to hang out. Excellent happy hour drink specials.

Koh Tao, Thailand - Not really a town but again a very chill place, excellent diving, beautiful scenery. Not much to do but dive but we still ended up spending 3 weeks there.

Favorite Restaurants:

Friends Cafe, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Run as a Co-op to train orphaned kids in the restaurant business, a good concept but even better food. Staff was very friendly and the food was some of the best we had.

FCC (Foreign Correspondents Cafe), Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A journo hangout during the various wars this place reeks of colonial charm. Great views from the second floor of the chaos below and locals walking along the river. The pizza is the best we had on our trip. The Martini's (Stacy) were a nice change from beer and the White Sangria (Betsy) definitely quenched one's thirst in the Cambodian heat.

Kafe Batan Waru, Bali, Indonesia - Next to a big shopping mall in Tuban this place served some wonderful Indonesian/Balinese food. Our favorites included: Karedok - Bandung style vegetable salad with peanut tamarind dressing and Ayam Rica-Rica - One half chicken de-boned and grilled and simmered in a manadonese chili sauce with shitake mushrooms

Texas BBQ – Nha Trang, Vietnam - Great BBQ as good as anything from home and a nice break from all the rice/noodles etc we’d been eating on our trip up to that point. Easily the best burger I had on the whole trip.

Favorite Experiences:

Halong Bay Boat Trip, Northern Vietnam – Did the 3 day 2 night trip which was much better than the traditional one night trip as you don’t just follow all the other boats but instead head to the quieter areas of Halong Bay. Excellent food, good company and great scenery this trip was well worth busting the budget for.

Mahout Experience, Luang Prabang, Laos - Mahouts are elephant trainers and we got to spend a day training to be a Mahout. We got our own elephant that we learned to command, and that we took down to the river to bathe. It was an amazing experience and highly recommended.

Scuba Diving, Koh Tao, Thailand and Gili Islands, Indonesia - Scuba diving was a revelation to both of us and we enjoyed it immensely. It is something we will definitely be doing again.

Esala Perehara Festival, Kandy, Sri Lanka - Amazing festival with hundreds of decorated elephants lighting up the street for 4 nights.

Favorite Bars:

FCC, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - See favorite restaurants above

Any of the cheap beer/2 for 1 cocktails places in Hoi An, Vietnam

Windansea Resort Bar/Restaurant, Koh Tao, Thailand - Good food and a great place to watch the sun go down in Koh Tao

Best Trip:

Two day boat ride up the Mekong River, Laos - From Luang Prabang upstream to the Thai border. Amazing scenery, interesting villages, feeling very remote and cut off from the rest of the world.

12 Hour bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos - Long, stomach churning trip but unbelievable scenery for most of the trip.

10 Hour boat ride from Chau Doc, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia - One of those trips that was not much fun at the time but very cool in hindsight. Long day, hot, uncomfortable transport but seeing an area that not many tourist venture by was fun as was waving at all the children on the banks of the river. A very remote feeling!

Best Hotel:

Silq Bangkok - Bangkok, Thailand – One of our most expensive hotels at $50/night but worth 3x that!

Manta Dive Bungalows, Gili Islands, Indonesia – No TV, no internet, no problem. Beautiful setting, and cold beer was all we needed and the beautiful outdoor bathroom was cool as well. No motorized vehicles anywhere on the islands was a bonus.

Now for some of the worsts:

Worst City: Hanoi, Vietnam – Maybe because it was our first stop and we were still getting over the culture shock, Hanoi just didn’t do much for us especially compared to other SE Asian cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh.

Most overpriced country: Sri Lanka - Hands down this was the most expensive place, could have been an interesting place but so much more expensive than any of the other places we had visited it just wasn't worth the extra cost.

Worst Hotel: Polonnarurawa, Sri Lanka - Overpriced, mosquito infested, dirty sheets (thank god we had sleep sheets!) for our now long forgotten hotel in Polonnarurawa. The swimming pool was so dirty I wouldn’t let my dog swim in it and the room was worse. We checked out after 1 night.

Worst Night: 1 night we spent at Don Khone (4000 Islands, Laos). Nice bungalow, idyllic setting, very peaceful and beautiful but 100+F and no power except from 6pm-10pm each night so the locals could watch their Thai soap operas. That meant no fan let alone no AC so we spent the whole night sweating under our mosquito net listening to all the bugs buzzing around our heads. I would highly recommend the 4000 islands during cool season would give it a miss during hot season, though they were in the process of putting power lines out to the islands so that may change.

Worst Experience(s):

Stacy: 11 hour Overnight Bus from Pakse to Vientiane. Beds comfortable for one 4 foot person had to accommodate two of us

Betsy: Overnight Train from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam. Within minutes of getting to our carriage Betsy started noticing all the cockroaches scurrying around the room. She spent the whole night wrapped in her sleep sheet with only her eyes showing, wide open with the light on watching the bugs run across the walls.

Honorable Mention: Boat from Gili Islands back to Bali – Only a 3 hour trip but lets just say within 10 minutes of leaving I was scouting out where the lifejackets were located.

Worst Restaurant – Tum Tum Bamboo – Luang Prabang, Laos – Food was indescribably terrible. It had obviously been micro waved as some parts were cold, others hot. Terrible, Terrible, took about 2 bites and walked out.

The highlights of our trip greatly outnumbered the lowlights, after hearing so many stories about people being ripped off around SE Asia we were happy to say that we had very few problems. Southeast Asia is a wonderful place and we really enjoyed our time there. The food, people and culture were all wonderful and we look forward to going back and exploring the region even more down the road.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sri Lanka or Bust?

So it turns out Sri Lanka has been a bit of a bust at least compared to our other destinations in Asia. As I mentioned it is very expensive for what you get. We are spending 2x as much on average per day in Sri Lanka as we had been in SE Asia and not getting the same quality of accomodation!

We were also unable to find any decent, reasonably priced accomodation in the Hill Country area which is the the part of Sri Lanka that everyone says is the best part of the country.

As such we were left with a bit of a dilemma, our plan had been to head down south to the beaches for a week or so after visiting the Hill country but now we are faced with spending 2 weeks in the beach areas after having spent the last 2 months in beach areas.

So we decided to cut short our Sri Lanka adventure and head back to Singapore and catch an early flight home. It didn't make sense to be spending so much money in Sri Lanka just to run out the clock the last couple of weeks.

It's been a great adventure and we've had a great time but it's time to head home and prepare for the next adventure.

We'll have a summary of our bests & worsts up in a few days.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ancient Cities

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka - We spent a couple of days visiting the Ancient cities in Central Sri Lanka. These cities including Polonnaruwa and Sigirya have a mix of buddhist and hindu ruins, temples and stupas that date back over 1000 years.

The tickets are expensive ($50 for foreigners, 0 for Sri Lankans, what else is new?) and while the sites aren't as spectacular as Angkor they are still interesting.

We are finding Sri Lanka to be very expensive compared to the other countries we have visited and not a particularly good value. Hotels especially are expensive compared to what you get. A $70 hotel here seems to be equivalent to a $20 hotel elsewhere in SE Asia.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kandy's Esala Perahera

Kandy, Sri Lanka - We ended up going to the Perahera festival on two nights including the final night. It was quite interesting and spectacular to see though it turned out the 2 nights were 99% the same. There was about a hundred elephants in the parade plus dancers and musicians and other assorted performers.

People started to line up on the sidewalk about noon for a parade that wouldn't start until almost 8pm. We were lucky enough to buy tickets (not cheap!) that allowed us to watch from a second floor balcony above the chaos. We also got dinner out of the deal which was good.

The Perahera was definitely interesting to see but it was long. We had to get to our restaurant around 4pm in order to make it through the checkpoints and people to even see the parade and then the parade lasted around 4 hours.

There was a lot of talk that this year's Perahera was bigger than usual with a larger audience than normal due to the end of the 30 year civil war in Sri Lanka in May. We can attest to the fact that it was packed with people!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without....

Kandy, Sri Lanka - Don't leave home without a bottle of Gin! The main thing going on in Kandy right now is the Esala Perahera festival which is an approximately 10 day Buddhist festival and the largest festival in Sri Lanka. One of the downsides of the festival apart from the crazy crowds, police checkpoints and hawkers is there is a ban on selling booze in all the bars/restaurants for the whole festival.

We didn't realize this until we headed out our first afternoon for a walk around town. We stopped to take a look at the bar at our hotel which has a great vantage point overlooking the city and saw a sign on the door saying no alcohol would be served during the Perahera Festival!

Luckily we had decided in Singapore to get a bottle of gin at duty free. We had gotten kind of tired of beer on our trip and wine was always expensive and/or not very good. Cocktails are readily available everywhere but also very expensive. So we decided to bring our own bottle and just buy tonic water and make our own G&T's.

Lucky thing we did! Our first night in Kandy Betsy went down and asked the bar for two glasses with ice and lime. The bartender laughed and asked her if she had a bottle of rum in her room, she got nervous and said no that we just had some sparkling water but he didn't care either way.

So each evening we have our Gin & Tonic and sit and watch the sun go down from our hotel. It's quite the colonial experience!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Welcome to Sri Lanka!

Kandy, Sri Lanka - Well we've been in Sri Lanka for 2 days now after flying from in from Singapore. We spent 2 nights and one day at the Ayubowan Guesthouse in Negombo. The owners Ron & Brenda Cornelius were lovely and made us feel very welcome. I unfortunately picked up a bit of a stomach bug in Singapore so we did not get a chance to see much of Negombo and instead spent a lazy day by the pool reading and swimming.

Today we had a 3 hour drive to Kandy where we will be based for the next 5 nights. It definitely feels like a bit of culture shock being here which is something we haven't felt since we arrived in Vietnam 4.5 months ago.

Driving here is crazy (just like Vietnam) and there are lots of people (just like Vietnam). The people are friendly though and we felt much more comfortable after walking around town a bit to get our bearings.

Kandy is packed with people at the moment for the Esala Perahera Festival which is the biggest festival of the year in Sri Lanka.

After we got settled into our hotel we went down to reception to ask some questions about where to see the processions and the manager asked why our guide didn't know. When we explained we didn't have a guide he seemed rather confused.

Sure enough everyone walking around the hotel is with a guide, we just always have to be unique I guess. Betsy asked where our guide was and I told her that she should be glad we took a car & driver today instead of the local bus to Kandy.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gili Fast Boat or is it Wet Boat?

Bali, Indonesia - We left the Gili Islands Tuesday to head back to Bali by fast boat. There are several options for getting to and from the Gili Islands with the fast boat being the quickest and most expensive option. The fast boats are really speedboats 25-35 feet with several large outboard motors that seat 20 to 30 people.

On our last night the wind really picked up such that we had 4-5 foot choppy seas. That might not sound like much but that was in addition to the normal swells. The swells here are pretty unbelievable. As I mentioned in a previous post Indonesia has some of the greatest currents around as it is where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet up. The Pacific Ocean is several feet higher than the Indian Ocean so that coupled with the thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian Archipelago create rivers through the islands.

The swells seemed to be about 100 feet long and 20 feet deep and on our way out to Gili we would gently ride up and gently ride down but on the journey back the swells were accompanied by 4 to 5 foot chop which made it quite a bumpy ride

The currents between the island we were on, Gili Trawangan and the island next to it, Gili Air about a half mile away were as bad as anything we saw on the Mekong River.

So our fast boat left about 1130am for the 2.5 hour journey back to Bali and it was an adventure. We were going across the chop so by the end of the journey I felt like I had a compressed spine.

At one point I was taking note of where the life jackets were and wondering if I could use my belt to secure Betsy and I together in the water but we made it back with no issues and I have a feeling that the waves were nothing out of the ordinary as none of the boat staff seemed particularly worried!

On Thursday we head to Singapore for one night and then on Friday we head to Sri Lanka for our last month of travel. Sri Lanka will be a nice change from Southeast Asia and we are really looking forward to it.

Diving the Gili Islands

Bali, Indonesia - Diving was excellent in the Gili Islands and we greatly enjoyed our last 5 nights and 4 days. We did 8 dives over 4 days with visibility up to 30 m. The only downsides of diving in the Gili's are most of the coral above about 15m has been bombed by fishermen so you really have to dive to 20-30m to see the best coral formations and sea life. It makes diving in the Gili's not that great for those with only their Open Water certification. It was definitely worthwhile getting our Advanced Certification in Koh Tao!

The other downside of diving in the Gili's are the currents. We had a couple of dives where it felt like we were diving in a river. You feel like you are holding on more than just floating along. But those two things aside the variety of sea life is amazing. We saw turtles, ocotopi, scorpionfish, mackerel, barramundi, crabs, prawns, frogfish, pipefish, trumpetfish, lionfish, sharks, cuttlefish and so on and so on.

It was a great trip and already has us thinking of our next dive trip, maybe to the Red Sea in Egypt or Belize.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shark Diving

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia - Today we got back in the water and went diving for the first time in 3 weeks. Our first site of the day was Shark Point which is supposedly one of the best sites on the Gili Islands. We were quite excited to see a shark for the first time or I should say I was excited to see a shark, Betsy was a little nervous, so nervous that I nicknamed her "Shark Bait".

Down we went to 22m for 52 minutes, we saw several octopi, cuttlefish, hawksbill turtles, moray eel, banded sea snakes (3 right next to each other) as well as the usual assortment of angelfish, fusiliers, bannerfish and other creatures of the deep. What we didn't see was a shark! Quite a few people on the boat saw a shark but we unfortunately did not.

Our second dive was at a site called Manta Point, here we dropped down to 22m and immediately came upon a 2m Whitetip Reef Shark that was resting on the sand. He swam around in circles and we probably got within 15-20ft of him. We also saw a large school of batfish, more cuttlefish, a baby shark, turtles and the usual assortment.

What we noticed diving here compared to Thailand are the currents. The currents are very strong whereas in Thailand we had almost no current. On our second dive there was a large surge as well so you would swim along and the surge would sway you back and forth about 10 feet. That took some getting used to. The downside with that is we had to wear extra weight. Whereas in Thailand I had only 3kg of weight here I am using almost double the amount. The currents are really strong!

It is hard to say who has the better diving. There are definitely larger pelagics (fish) here but I don't feel there is the same number of fish as Koh Tao (Betsy disagrees on that). What we do agree on is the coral is much more spectacular in Koh Tao. Years of dynamite fishing has destroyed a lot of the coral here luckily that is no longer practiced.

What is better in Gili is the visibility. We can see 20m+ whereas Koh Tao was about half that. Both areas are great and we are looking forward to our next few dives here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Diving the Gili's

Gili Islands, Indonesia – It is interesting to see how Bali has changed since the bombings in Jakarta. There are now guards at the hotel checking the ID of everyone entering from the front of the hotel or from the beach. Some of the guards are even carrying automatic machine guns which is a bit eerie. All the malls and restaurants we've been to have security guards who check people's bags as they enter, it definitely feels like security has been ramped up in a big way the last few days.

All in all we feel very safe though, business is going on as normal and there are tons of tourists so hopefully the Jakarta bombings won't affect Bali's tourism industry too much.

Today we arrived in Gili Trawangan which is a small island about an hour and a half boat ride from Bali. We are here for 5 days to do some diving. Trawangan is one of 3 islands known as the Gili Islands. All 3 are very small and you can walk around the whole island in a couple of hours. There also are no motor vehicles allowed on the islands. No cars, trucks, scooters just a few bicycles and pony carts.

Tomorrow for our first dive we are going to Shark Pt. This is supposedly one of the best dive sites around the Gili's and we are almost guaranteed to see some sharks which will be cool. I guess they usually hang out around 24m and we will be going down as far as 30m.

In the afternoon we will be going to Manta Pt another great site where we may even spot a manta ray.

It has been 3 weeks since our last dive in Koh Tao so we are really looking forward to getting back in the water and seeing some new things.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jakarta Bombings

Bali, Indonesia - We arrived in Bali yesterday after traveling from Phuket, Thailand stopping over in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then on to Bali. It was a pretty uneventful trip and the food on Malaysian Airlines was quite good.

What was a disappointment was the KL airport. It was one of the worst airports we've been to. We were in the Malaysian Air International Terminal and while there were a million duty free shops there wasn't even a newsstand to buy a bottle of water, hardly any seating and nowhere to eat except a Harrod's Cafe and a hot dog stand!

The airport looked brand spanking new but the amenities it offered were terrible.

Today we woke up to see that two hotels in Jakarta had been bombed. Very sad but we are hundreds of miles and a body of water from Jakarta so are not particularly worried plus our Holiday Inn is only about half full so probably not a great target.

Betsy is dealing with some stomach issues so I am out wandering on my own today. Hopefully she feels better in a day or so. Our hotel is very nice, thank goodness for hotel points!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Monsoon's & Travel Plans

Phuket, Thailand - We are still in Phuket having been here just over a week now but are heading to Bali, Indonesia tomorow.

The week in Phuket has really flown by as it doesn't seem like we've done much except do some surfing, hanging around the great pool at our hotel and planning the last 6 weeks of our trip.

Last weekend we had a tropical storm come through where it rained most of Saturday and Sunday, at times quite heavy. So needless to say we were stuck in the room most of those two days so we decided to plan out our last six weeks. It was a pretty crazy storm with palm fronds knocked down everywhere and the power off and on for two days. I got soaked going out to get us dinner one night. When I left it was sprinkling but by time I returned it was a torrential downpour!

Back to our travel plans, our intention had been to go to Sulawesi in Indonesia and do some diving and then follow that up with some more diving around Bali & Lombok also in Indonesia however what we failed to realize was that it is high season in Indonesia right now and in Bali that means best of luck getting a hotel, in the other areas getting a hotel was possible but very expensive. So to make a long story short we have cut our plans in Indonesia from 6 weeks to 2 weeks with about 9 days in Bali using points for our hotel stay and 5 days in the Gili Islands doing some diving.

On July 30th we fly from Bali back to Singapore and then on July 31st we are headed to Sri Lanka for a month before flying back to Singapore on Aug 29th and then home on Sept 1st.

How did we come up with Sri Lanka? We basically looked at a map and tried to find destinations that were within a 2 or 3 hour flight that would be cheap to fly to, wouldn't be in high season like Bali but would still be a good time to visit and would be cheap once we got there.

We came up with 3 possibilities, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines. Nepal and the Philippines are very rainy right now whereas in Sri Lanka the weather is actually pretty good this time of year. The final marks in Sri Lanka's favor was that we could get a flight on Sri Lankan Air for $350 for the two of us and that the used bookstore next to our hotel had a copy of the Sri Lanka Lonely Planet!

So we've been reading up on Sri Lanka and trying to formulate an itinerary. The only thing we have booked right now is 5 nights in the town of Kandy which is the sight of the biggest festival of the year in Sri Lanka called the Esala Perahera.

The only other thing I need to keep in mind is my Fantasy Football Draft will be on the morning of Aug 28th our last day in Sri Lanka so I will have to make sure we have a hotel with a reliable internet connection...priorities you know!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Surfing in Thailand

Kata Beach, Thailand - Betsy and I took our first (of two) surf lessons today. Tony our surf instructor has been surfing for 20 years which means he started very young because he doesn't look much older than his 20's!

It was a lot of fun but tough work. I managed to stand up on my 3rd wave and ended up riding about half the waves that I tried to get up for. A couple i was kind of kneeling but didn't have any huge wipeouts.

The waves were good for learning about 3-4 feet.

Betsy had a little more trouble getting up on the board as I guess most women do when they first start as they don't have quite as much upper body strength to get up but she did pretty good and enjoyed herself enough to try it again tomorrow.

It was a blast and definitely looking forward to trying it again tomorrow though I think we are both going to be pretty tired!

Simple Life Divers

Phuket, Thailand - Betsy wrote a short thank you/review of our dive school in Koh Tao and they published it on their website. You can check it out here.

Phuket Revisited...

Phuket, THAILAND - We left Koh Tao via ferry headed for Koh Samui that is about a 2 hour ride. Unfortunately, it turned into a longer journey than expected. Once the ferry left the Koh Tao port we headed out for about 15 minutes and then came to stop as we anchored up with two other ferry boats in the middle of the ocean. With no announcement we somehow gathered that we had to get our belongings together and step across to the other boat and the passengers on that boat were to board our original boat. The entire process took almost an hour. When we finally arrived on to Koh Samui we boarded a mini van that was to take several of us to our various hotels. Of course we were the last ones in the van with the driver wanted to head back in the direction of the port but we know our hotel was further on. We convinced him, after he stopped to ask directions twice and was still taking us in the wrong direction, to borrow someone's mobile to ring our hotel for proper directions. That did the trick and we were at our hotel a few minutes after that.

We spent the next 3 days at the Samui Reef View Resort relaxing by the pool and organizing our next stops. The Samui Reef View is located up on a hillside and was very quiete with the pool adding to the chill-out factor. The owner, Angus & his wife made us feel at home.

Next, we flew to Phuket to stay at Kata Beach. Our first flight since flying to Hanoi, Vietnam in late March. To date all of our travels have been via bus, boat or train. Stacy and I were in Phuket 5 years ago on our honeymoon. It is low season here so the hotel and restaurants are pretty quiet. The plan for now is to stay here for the next 5 days and maybe take a couple surfing lessons.

Teddy's Mini-Me....

Koh Tao, THAILAND - During our 20-day stay on the island of Koh Tao, we got to know the employee's of the hotel and dive shop very well. One of the ladies that worked at our hotel, Simple Life Resort, brought her 4 month old puppy to work every day. He would accompany the maids while they went from room to room cleaning. He looks exactly like my mother's dog, Teddy and I got very attached to him during our stay.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Where in the world are the Kuchta's?

Koh Tao, Thailand - Yes we are still in Koh Tao, going on 18 days but are finally getting ready to leave tomorrow to Koh Samui another island about a 90minute boat ride from here.

There hasn't been much in the way of posts lately because we haven't been doing much except chilling on the island and diving and without an underwater camera simply writing about our dive trips is probably not very interesting.

We've hit pretty much every major dive site around here from the depths of Chumphon Pinnacle to the recent dive boat wreck at Japanese Gardens to the schools of fusiliers at Mango Bay we've seen a lot. The weather has been great and the water warm. Our new found love for diving has definitely changed our focus for the last couple of months of our trip.

So far we have done our open water certification, advanced open water certification and a half dozen "fun" dives with our favorite dive operator on the island Simple Life Divers. Thanks to Woz our instructor and Lisa our divemaster on our fun dives for making our diving so enjoyable.

On our last dive for our advanced certification Woz brought along a camera and we took a few pictures that you can see below.

Us under a school of fusiliers

Looking up at the Fusiliers

Nasty looking Triggerfish

As Betsy calls it a "cute" little boxfish

Stacy & Betsy getting ready
for a dive

Monday, June 22, 2009

Certifiably Diving!

Koh Tao, Thailand - Well, it's official Betsy and I are now certified divers! Woohoo! We completed our Open Water course with two dives yesterday, one called White Rock and the other Japanese Gardens. It was great fun and we both really enjoyed it. We got down to a depth of about 20m (60ft) and got to see a lot of interesting things.

The highlights of the dives yesterday were probably a blue spotted stingray and a school of barracuda that we swam through. We also were chased by a titan triggerfish (nasty little buggers!). Apart from that we saw all the usual suspects including sea urchin, "nemo" fish, bannerfish and an assortment of other colored creatures and critters.

The course was a blast, our instructor Woz was awesome and our classmates Rebecca and Clive were good fun. The school we went with Simple Life Divers was excellent and all the staff were great and very accomodating with us having to delay our diving a few days due to Betsy's cold.

We were accompanied on our open water dives yesterday by a videographer (thanks Amber) who filmed our setup and diving and turned it into a 20min DVD. We got to watch it last night at a local watering hole and it was great fun. Look for it in stores everywhere soon!

Since we have enjoyed ourselves so much we have decided to do the advanced open water certification which consists of 5 dives including a deep dive to 30m (100ft), underwater navigation, fish identification, a night dive and a buoyancy control dive.

This new found love for diving has altered our travel plans once again as we are now planning our trip around what dive locations we can hit.

We've been in Koh Tao for a week now and will probably be here another week. We are enjoying the island and not in any real hurry to move on at this point.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Koh Tao Diving

Koh Tao, Thailand - Betsy and I completed our first dive today, actually it was really just our "shallow water" or "confined water" training but it was a real dive nonetheless.

We were supposed to start the course a few days ago but Betsy picked up a cold so we had to delay and as such haven't been doing much the last couple of days but relaxing and letting her recover.

Yesterday we did the "academic" part of the course...yawn. Today we went out on the boat to a dive site called Japanese Garden. Once we were geared up in we went. We swam from the boat to the beach (about 50m) where the water was only about 2m deep. We then "dropped" to the bottom and practiced some basic skills like taking your regulator out of your mouth and putting it back into your mouth remembering to purge it before breathing in! Also filling your mask with water and clearing it underwater.

We also got to scuba around the site for about 20minutes after we had practiced our skills. Even while we were practicing our skills there were many fish swimming right up to us, schools of small brightly colored fish, larger colored fish even a barracuda was seen.

Betsy was a little nervous that she wouldn't be able to equalize her ears due to her cold but she did pretty good. We only went as deep as 7m (22 ft) but still were able to see a lot. All in all we were underwater for about 50minutes.

Tomorrow we have a bit more academics and then we have two dives in the afternoon to 12m (40ft).

On Sunday we do our final two dives at a place called Chumphon Pinnacle which is famous for its Whale Sharks (large plankton eating sharks that grow up to 12m (40ft) long).

The dive operator we are doing our course with is called Simple Life. So far they have been excellent. I actually got my dive certification 10 years ago in Seattle and didn't really enjoy the course or the instructors. I only went for a real dive once after that and then soon moved to Denver and never dived again.

Simple Life has made this a much better diving experience. They were very flexible with Betsy's cold and our instructor "Woz" has been great. We've also got a small group of just 4 so it makes the instruction that much more personal.

We are looking forward to doing some serious diving in the last couple of months of our trip as we journey down through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oceans Away!

Chumphon, Thailand - We just arrived in Chumphon which is down on the east coast in southern Thailand and the gateway to the eastern islands of Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. This is the first glimpse of the ocean we've had in 2 months since we left Nha Trang in Vietnam.

We had what should have been a 6 hour train ride and turned out to be a 9 hour trip. We were late leaving Bangkok and also hit a cow on the way though that didn't seem to slow us down much. It sounded like we hit a speedbump and then there was gravel flying and cows running all over the place...not sure what the result was for the cow but Betsy said there was a streak of "Cow Digested Grass" down the side of the train.

You have to love Thai Railways, we've taken 3 trips and while the trains are comfortable enough, 2 of the 3 have been a couple of hours late. We were commenting about all the traveling we've done up to this point and had zero delays until we started using Thai Railways!

Anyhow we are staying about 20 minutes from Chumphon next to where the catamaran will take us to Ko Tao Island tomorrow where we will do our diving certification...hopefully!

I say hopefully because Betsy thinks she might be coming down with a cold. That isn't the end of the world but would delay us diving a few days.

I feel like we've gotten into a bit of a rut traveling since we arrived in Thailand. Thailand is very modern compared to the other countries we've been to and as such it has been a lot of shopping, going to the mall, different restaurants and not a lot of touring.

Hopefully being on the islands will rejuvenate us a bit.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Big Mango

Bangkok, Thailand - We arrived by train in Bangkok this afternoon from Phitsanulok. We had taken a train to Phitsanulok from Chiang Mai a couple of days ago with the intention of seeing the historical ruins at Sukhothai about an hour away from Phitsanulok but both of us are going through a bit of temple fatigue so we bagged that plan. That coupled with the fact that I have had "Thailand Tummy" the last 4 days it wasn't hard to skip Sukhothai.

It is great to be in Bangkok aka The Big Mango, we found a nice little boutique hotel that just opened a month ago so we've gotten a great "Grand Opening" rate. We will be here about 5 days. The plan is to get our Indonesian visas here and also go see a movie. We haven't seen a movie in ages and Bangkok has lots of first run movies in english.

From here we may go to Kanchanburi which was made famous in the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai" and is the site of the "Death Railway" built by Allied prisoners in WW2 but it seems like a bit of a slog and we are both feeling pretty lazy these days so we'll see...

The other more likely option is to head down to the Thai islands for a few weeks. We are thinking that we might do our diving certification while we are here. Betsy has never dived and I actually got certified about 10 years ago but then only dived a couple of times after that.

It seems a shame to come to some of the best diving areas in the world and not take advantage of it. So if we do that we will head to Ko Tao an island in the Gulf of Thailand that grants more diving certifications each year than anywhere in the world except Cairns, Australia.

Our Thai visas are good until July 26th so we have plenty of time left to explore the country.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thai Cooking Class...

Chiang Mai, THAILAND - Stacy was suffering from a bout of traveler's tummy so he was not up to attending the cooking class at the Thai Orchid Cookery School, so I was on my own.

The class was held at a local family home that they had arranged to support a cooking class. The day started with a great tour of a local market and to purchase produce for our class. Then it was off to the school for some cooking.

The instructors would demonstrate each dish and then we would go to our individual cooking stations and try it for ourselves. We made Tom Yum (spicy Thai) soup with shrimp, deep fried spring rolls (picture is me assembling the spring rolls), panang curry, pad thai, green papaya salad and steamed banana cake. Very proud to say that all of my dishes actually turned out great. They also gave us a cookbook so hopefully I can replicate my cooking skills for Stacy when we get home. It was a fun filled day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Flying Through the Jungle

Chiang Mai, Thailand - We've been in Chiang Mai now for almost a week and it has been great.  The food has been great, the weather, our hotel, the shopping, everything.  We were only planning on being here 3 days but have been extending our stay a day every couple of days. On Friday though we will catch the train and head down south towards Phitsanulok & Sukhothai.

Yesterday we did something that neither have us have tried before...zip lining.  We went zip lining & abseiling (rappelling) in the jungles north of Chiang Mai with a company called Flight of the Gibbon.

It was great fun, we did 11 zip lines with the longest being 150m (450ft) at a height of 150m above the ground and 3 rappels, the longest being 45m (135ft).

Betsy was a little nervous at the start as she has a fear of heights but by the end of the day she was ready to jump off the platforms to get a running start.  She was a trooper and we both had a great time.

Here is a video I took while zip lining:

Here is a video of Betsy's first zip line, the look of sheer terror was gone by the 3rd zip line:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Laos Photos

Laos photos are now up.  Click on the link on the right.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Welcome to Thailand!

Chiang Mai, Thailand - After two 10 hour  days on a boat running rapids up the Mekong River followed by a 6 hour minibus ride from the border we've finally arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We were here on our honeymoon 5.5 years ago so it is nice to be back in a city we really enjoyed and have some familiarity with.

We left Luang Prabang on Wednesday morning and spent 1o hours on our boat the Luang Say cruising upstream to  Pak Beng where we overnighted.  The cruise was quite nice as we were on a boat that held 40 and there  was only 7 of us so plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the scenery. We made a couple of stops along the way to see some caves and visit a couple of villages. 

One of the villages is famous for its Lao Lao which is the local moonshine aka rice whiskey.  After being told the fine points of how the whiskey is distilled we were invited to sample some of the firewater.

It wasn''t too bad though probably would have tasted better if it wasn't 100F+ outside and the bottles hadn't been sitting in the sun all day.

The scenery along the river was spectacular, very mountainous with many rocky outcrops in the river exposed by how low the river was at this time of year.  The boat even had to run the rapids upsteam quite a few times.  For such a large boat it apparently only drew about a meter of water so didn't need much water to avoid running aground.

We spent a night in Pak Beng actually about a mile upstream of PakBeng at the Luang Say Lodge which was quite nice with great vistas of the mountains and the Mekong River from our windows.

Unfortunately it was quite warm and since there were no screen on the windows we had to keep them closed to keep the bugs out (we did have a mosquito net over the bed as well).

Neither of us slept great as it was so warm though the lodge was very comfortable and the dinner was excellent.

After breakfast it was back on the boat by 7am for another 10 hour  trip.  We stopped at one more village (I feel like I've seen enough villages for awhile) and arrived at Houay Xai on the Lao side of the border around 5pm.  We took a tuk-tuk to the Lao border and got our exit stamps then hopped in a small boat that took us across the Mekong to the Thai side.  After having our temperature taken to make sure we didn't have swine flu (we didn't!) and a couple of forms and stamps later we were officially allowed into Thailand.

We had decided to spend the night  at the border and head to Chiang Mai the  next day as it was 6 more hours to get to Chiang Mai.  We threw our backpacks on and headed down the main road paralleling the Mekong to find a hotel.

After a few hundred meters we were sweating like crazy as it was quite warm and very humid out (Surprise!).  We stopped at the first hotel that said they had AC, I looked at a room and while it wasn't anything special it was reasonably clean, cheap and had AC.

After cooling down for a few minutes we headed out to organize our transport to Chiang Mai the next day and booked a mini-bus.

The next day we had an uneventful minibus ride from Chiang Kong to Chiang Mai followed by a short walk to our hotel and we had arrived.

Twenty hours on a boat, 2 nights and a 6 hour minibus ride was all it had taken!  I think we'll stay in Chiang Mai a few days to recuperate.  The weather is much nicer here, the food is great and we have a few things we need to get done with me needing a hair cut and Betsy needing a spa treatment being the top 2 on the list!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Monks on Parade

Today I managed to get Betsy out of bed bright and early to see the monks receiving their alms from the locals.  Every morning between 530am and 6am (except Sunday's it seems) the monks walk through the streets where the locals give them sticky rice for their bowls.

Today is also our last day in Luang Prabang.  We were here for 6 days the longest we've been anywhere and honestly we were ready to leave a couple of days ago but we had to wait for our boat which isn't leaving until tomorrow.  We haven't done as much sightseeing as we'd have liked in Luang Prabang as it has just been too hot!  Accuweather.com currently shows the "realfeel" temperature in Luang Prabang to currently be 135F!  Ouch!

We have a 2 day boat trip up the Mekong tomorrow morning and on Thursday night will cross the border into Thailand.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cambodia Photos

I've uploaded some photos from the Cambodia part of our trip (other than the Angkor Temples) to the website.  Click on the link to the  right or here

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Where to Next??

Luang Prabang, Laos - As I mentioned in the last post we are almost at the mid point of our trip and are trying to figure out where to go next.

We had both really wanted to go to Myanmar but with the onset of the wet season and blistering temperatures their at the moment coupled with intermittent electricity we are not sure how comfortable it would be traveling.  No AC or even a fan in 100F(40C) weather is pretty tough to do for long and with the wet season approaching some of the areas we really wanted to go would be inaccessible.

So Myanmar is out for this trip. 

What we have decided to do is spend June in Thailand and July and August in Indonesia.  We will cross into Thailand next week after taking a 2 day boat up the Mekong River to the Lao-Thai border.

From there we will work our way south through Thailand all the way to the Thai Islands down into Malaysia probably to Kuala Lumpur. 

From there we will fly to Indonesia for two months.  At this point we are thinking of spending 1 month on the island of Sulawesi and another month in Nusa Tenggara which are the group of islands east of Bali including Lombok & Flores.

Finally we'll end up in Bali for a week before flying back to Singapore and heading home.

All of the above are subject to change!

2 Months on the Road

Luang Prabang, Laos - Last week we passed our two month mark on the road.  At times it seems like it is going by quickly but at other times it still feels like we have a long ways to go.

Some observations from the first couple of months:

Favorite Cities/Towns:
  • Halong Bay, Vietnam - Beautiful Scenery, lovely boat, fun co-passengers
  • Hoi An, Vietnam - Cheap Happy Hours! Lots of restaurant choices and nice town
  • Saigon, Vietnam - Vibrant cosmopolitan city, great food choices, huge improvement over Hanoi!
  • Luang Prabang, Laos - Similiar to Hoi An, very nice town, great food, shopping, tours. World Heritage site
Least Favorite Cities/Towns:
  • Hanoi, Vietnam - Big, dirty, loud, Hoan Kiem Lake was nice but that was about it.  Saigon was much better!
  • Chau Doc, Vietnam - Mekong Border town, spent 1 night which was plenty.
  • Battambang, Cambodia - Countryside tour made it worthwhile but the actual town had little redeeming features.
Favorite Restaurants:
  • Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh - Cheap Happy Hour, good food if a little expensive but great atmosphere, very colonial feel.
  • El Camino - Siem Reap, Cambodia - Authentic tasting Mexican food and great margaritas reminded us  of home
  • Texas BBQ - Nha Trang, Vietnam - Some of the best BBQ we've ever had, another reminder of home
  • Plenty of great little local restaurants that we've since forgotten the name of throughout Vietnam and to a lesser extent Cambodia & Laos.
  • JOMA Cafe in Vientiane & Luang Prabang - Good Sandwiches and great Lemon-Mint "Smoothies" for those HOT days.
  • Friends Cafe in Phnom Penh - Cafe trains former street children how to work in the restaurant industry and in the process serves some of the best food we've had anywhere in Asia.
Favorite Activities:
  • "Mahout for a Day" - Elephant Park Project, Luang Prabang, Laos - We each had our own elephant that we got to take down to the river and bathe, quite the experience!
  • Halong Bay 3 day/2 night tour on the Prince II.  Stunning scenery, great food and other travelers made this a highlight.
  • Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An - Great Food, nice riverside location.
  • Tuk-Tuk Tour through the countryside of Battambang, Cambodia, seeing villages, ruins and talking to our Tuk Tuk driver a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Killing Fields in Phnom Penh while not a "favorite" definitely the most moving.
Favorite Things:
  • Great Fruit Shakes/Juices
  • Cheap Beer (Beer Lao, Tiger Beer, Angkor, Singha etc), big bottles for a $1
  • Hotels with Air conditioning and wifi!
  • So many great eating options in most towns and cheap!
  • Not having to go to work every day!
  • Seeing interesting things and meeting interesting people

Least Favorite Things:
  • Expensive cocktails (Betsy - Can only drink so much beer!)
  • Having to figure out accomodation in each new town.
  • Staying near bodies of water (Mekong River) that you can't swim in and it is 100+F
  • Tuk Tuk drivers constantly asking you if you need a tuk tuk
  • Vietnamese trains - expensive and dirty, the buses are much better value

Even our least favorite places had some redeeming features they just aren't places we would rush back to or tell anyone they had to see.

Two months down and three and a half to go at this point we are in no hurry to head home...