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Friday, March 22nd, 2013


I am just a couple of days away from Auckland, which also means just a couple days from my return to the US.  It is coming incredibly fast, this imminent moment.  I know I’ve spent a year away, but going home means having to get back to reality, and that is something I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.  You see, my first title for this blog post was going to be “Heaven IS a Place on Earth” because New Zealand is just that; paradise, ethereal, surreal; nature’s utopia.  Easily one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.  Yet, I decided that this blog must be dedicated to the one who has made the last four weeks possible, the one who has moved me around this amazing country, who has provided shelter and been home base.  Her name is Sushi and she is a 1993 Subaru Legacy that Dore and I bought for $300NZD (approx. $255USD) in Christchurch upon Dore’s arrival.

Now, everyone knows the saying “you get what you pay for” and we knew that we were buying an old car, our girl has almost 300,000 km (180,000 miles) on her; a car which has problems, her prior Japanese owner told us in his broken English what might be wrong with her; and a car which might not get us to the end of the road.  But at that price, these were all things we were willing to deal with, to see what just might happen.  And we did.

We drove her hard for the first two weeks on the south island: across the huge Alps of Arthur’s Pass, up the windy roads of the West Coast, through the mountainous terrain of Abel Tasman and Golden Bay.  That’s when we had to have a repair done, which has made her a $725 car, and one we knew we needed to be gentler with.  So, as we hit the north Letting Sushi Cool Downisland this meant taking our time, making planned stops in beautiful riverside picnic areas or taking nature walks through Kauri forests to let her cool down and catch her breath (Kauri are ancient trees which grow huge, but have been endangered by disease and humans.  Not a similar tree, but similar concept to our Redwoods.).  All this worked out just right, allowing us to see things we may not have otherwise.  We have definitely gotten our monies worth from her in transport and accommodation as we’ve spent many nights camping in her.

Following is a quick rundown of what’s been done in the last month, all in a couple liners; 90%  has been camping and hiking, and most of the other 10% has been visiting vineyards and craft breweries, in lieu of cities and towns.  There is no way that words or pictures can do justice to the sheer beauty of this country.  To truly get it, one must see it for themselves.  Every road traveled, every forest traversed, every beach walked, every river swam, every bay spotted will take one’s breath away.  It’s almost unfathomable.  And the people are genuinely friendly, helpful, and full of pride for their amazing country.

Christchurch: devastated by four earthquakes from Sept. 2010 to Dec. 2011, CC looks like a war zone, so we bought Sushi and left.

Arthur’s Pass: the crossing from east coast to west coast.  Started at Castle Hill Boulder Field and ended with a full day climb to Avalanche Peak, 1833 meters (5500 feet) up sheer rock on a narrow trail for views of several glaciers, including Crow’s On way to Avalanche PeakGlacier.  Lord of the Rings fans, this is Mordor.

Hokitika: west coast artist colony, a beautiful beach covered in driftwood art; fun and groovy.

Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers: south end of the West Coast region, the worlds only glaciers nestled within tropical rainforest.

Greymouth: depressed mining town midway up West Coast.  The place we decided to start camping in Sushi.  Perfectly sized for the two of us to stretch out comfortably, paying a lot of money for petrol, and then we could stay wherever we wanted.  It was decided.

Pancake Rocks:  Incredibly unique geological formations.  Just a quick stop, but worth a mention.

Karamea: remote northern tip of the West Coast, on the western border of the Kaharangi National Forest.  Starting point of the Heaphy Track.  The beaches here are vast and empty, we hiked to Scott’s Beach, through rainforest to a white sand beach that ran as far as the eye could see.At Pancake Rocks

Upper Moutere/Ruby Bay: east of Abel Tasman, reunited with a couple we’d met in Thailand; attended music festival headlining New Zealand’s Fat Freddy’s Drop, talented and energetic, love them horns.  Delicious local craft beers on draft at The Moutere Inn.  If you like beer, this is a must stop.

Abel Tasman:  One of the Great Walks; dazzling bays every hour to two of walking.  Stayed three nights at Totaranui Campsite.  Solo hike south through beautiful Goat’s Bay, returning to a gourmet Italian dinner made by Dore; incredible what can be cooked up in one pot.  Then, big hike together north to Separation Point, home to a seal colony, and on to crystal clear tropical blue waters of Whariwharangi Beach.  Feasted for dinner on 40 of the biggest, most scrumptious New Zealand Green Shell Mussels which we harvested ourselves.

Farewell Spit: the largest natural sandbar in the world, 21 miles long and possibly a mile wide.  Breathtaking sight of rolling white sand dunes to the horizon.

Wharariki Beach:  just another beautiful beach (sense the sarcasm), different than all the others.  New Zealand just kept Beautiful Abel Tasmanastonishing me.

Onekaka/Golden Bay:  Shambhala Guest House, for a couple nights in a real bed, is also a yoga center and organic farm run off solar power and rainwater.  The Mussel Inn, the best bar/restaurant of the whole trip, brewed their own beer and cider, had delicious fresh food, a great staff, and an inviting and comfortable atmosphere in which we played a game of Scrabble.  Another must stop.

Te Waikoropupu “Pupu” Springs: quick stop to view what is literally the clearest water in the world, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Break here with bout of car trouble, an incredibly odd night at a backpacker’s that was housing Tongan fruit pickers, and a tow to Nelson the next day.

Blenheim: a series of vineyards, starting with George Michels, and then discovering MANA, an org whose farmers are all organic and biodynamic, so from there we hit three members vineyards: Fromm, Highfields, and Rock Ferry.  Each specialized in different varietals, and Rock Ferry has a remarkably good restaurant where we had a fantastic meal.Pupu Springs

Queen Charlotte Sound:  meeting up with our friends again, totally by surprise; we kayaked the sound, enjoyed a night with friends, and a morning playing mini-golf before catching the ferry to the north island.

Waiohine Gorge in the Tararua Forest Park:  fantastic walk through tropical forest along the banks of crystal clear rivers; met a fellow camper who had been deer hunting and gave us a generous portion of venison.

Hastings/Havelock: more vineyards, where the south island is most well-known for its Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs, the north island is most well-known for its Chardonnays and Merlots.  Those worth mentioning, Trinity Hill, Te Awa which also labels Leftfield, Black Barn, and Crab Farm.  Delightful lunch at Black Barn, dining under vines dripping with grapes.

Napier: Art-Deco city.  Funky architecture, historic in nature.  Yummy Turkish food.

Break for second bout of car troubles trying to make it over mountainous terrain to Tongariro National Park.  Assisted by a couple of local guys we were successful in making a quick fix (stop leak stuff can work wonders) and we changed our


route.  We really wanted Sushi to make it to Auckland.

Kaingaroa Forest:  the largest forested area on the north island, home to the placid and picturesque Lake Waikaremoana.  It was here that we cooked the venison and drank the perfect wine that we’d bought at Te Awa.

Rotorua: met a local who turned us on to Waiotapo Springs and Kerosene Creek, both sacred hot spring pools; Waiotapo at night was amazing, a sky full of stars and the pool surrounded by candles.  It was like nothing else.

Lake Taupo:  the largest lake in New Zealand and the one that feeds the powerful Huka Falls.

Karangahake Gorge: Dickey Flat campground, in the center of what used to be a flourishing gold mining town.  Hiked to Karangahake Peak, 544 meters (1632 feet), a big difference from the peaks of the south island; views of the Coromandel Peninsula, swims in Waitawheta River.

Lake Waikaremoana


Coromandel Peninsula: known for its beaches; some very touristy like Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove; we took the more treacherous remote road to Fletcher Bay.  Gifted with fresh fish and garden grown veggies.  Hiked the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, up the mountain biking trail for spectacular views returning via Stony Bay on the more level coastal trail.

Clevedon Farmer’s Market: if you are ever driving from the Coromandel to Auckland on a Saturday this is a must stop, absolutely the best farmer’s market I’ve ever been too.  Every single stand offers samples of their fare and it is amazing.  Oh, and don’t eat before.

Final stop, Auckland: stayed with Dore’s family friends, wonderful people, and were welcomed with an earthquake just after arriving, trippy.  Wonderful collection at Auckland Art Gallery.  Final meal, fantastic Malaysian food and incredible ice cream before heading to the airport to fly back to the US.

Time to give thanks.  Thank you, Sushi, for all you offered and making it all the way to Auckland.  Thank you, Dore, for being our official driver and my travel buddy…full circle.  And thank you, New Zealand, for being so absurdly beautiful and a Coromandel Peninsulamost memorable last stop.  I know I’ve written quite a lot here, so thank you, too, for reading all of this.  Truth is, it doesn’t even tell it all.

It is now several days from when I started to write this blog and I am in New Jersey.  Almost 48 hours back on US soil and while it is wonderful to see my family, it is strange and surreal, natural yet unnatural all at the same time.  There will be time to contemplate, ruminate, and reflect, and I’m sure that will loan itself to the next blog post.  Until then, thank you for taking this most amazing, life expanding journey with me.  It’s been one extraordinarily incredibly phenomenal year.  Namaste.

PS.  Photo albums will be posted soon.  Will let you know.

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Posted in Food, history, nature, travel, Yoga | 7 Comments »

12,000 Feet Above Sea Level

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

As I was flying over the Fiordlands on my way to Queenstown I said to myself, “this is someplace I will want to return one day,” and when I left Queenstown I said the same thing.  The southwestern part of the south island is a place of vast beauty; a scenic paradise.  On a clear day all one can see for miles around are Over Fiordlands glacier covered Alps, pristine-crystal clear blue lakes, and flowing waterfalls surrounded by rugged landscape.

Queenstown is a wonderful place, although it is clearly a tourist town.  It consists of many bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tour operators, but it is quaint in its size, and offers a myriad of activities to do.  Queenstown Gardens is a gorgeous park with both manicured lawns and rugged lakeside trails, as well as a Frisbee golf course, tennis, ice skating, and a bowling club.  This type of bowling is similar to bocce, not like our version with pins.  The trail around the lake goes for miles to neighboring towns, and is very pleasing to walk.  There are several other day hikes available at all different levels.  My favorites were the Queenstown Hill Trail and the Ben Lomond Summit Trail.  The Queenstown Hill was less difficult, through forest to a lookout of the lake where there sits a sculpture called The Basket of Dreams.  One can literally sprawl in it and let it absorb their dreams so that they may come to fruition.Wahoo, made it!

The Ben Lomond was a much more strenuous hike, eight hours return up steep inclines to 5375 feet, and it was well worth the effort.  The 360⁰ panoramic views were outrageously gorgeous from the highest peak in Queenstown.  From there you can see to the horizon and are surrounded by picturesque snow covered mountains (oh yeah, it had snowed the night before I did this hike), deep forested valleys, and a couple of lakes.  Absolutely breathtaking.

And then there is Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound.  I went out there on a day tour from QT, but it is on my list of places to return to.  This area is huge, so vast there is no way to explain, and there are several different treks one can do, varying from 3-12 days, including the famous four day Milford Track, supposedly one of the most beautiful in the world.  The topography Fiordlands National Parkdiffers greatly here, too, from tropical forest with gushing rivers and falls to barren snow covered Alps.  The contrast is incredible to see.  This is one of those places that everyone should try to see in their lives, on scale with the Grand Canyon.  For pictures of Queenstown and Fiordlands, click here (no pics of Milford Sound because my camera conveniently stopped working).

From QT I headed to Wanaka, a smaller town about 1 ½ hours north, and the place I had chosen to skydive.  Why skydive?  Well, it is something I’ve always been scared to do, but also had a desire to try, to become the master of my fears.  When I began to plan this trip, I promised myself that if I’d made it to New Zealand I was going to skydive.  Why New Zealand versus anywhere else on my trip?  That’s easy…because of the vast beauty it offers.  And then, why Wanaka?  I knew I wanted to do my jump on the south island, mostly because it is sparsely developed and offers such diverse landscape to view.  Lake Wanaka is fed by Clutha River, the longest river in southern NZ, and is next to Lake Hawea, surrounded by the Pisa Mountain range and farmland.  Basically, it’s Free Fallingjust f-ing beautiful.

The skydive was amazing, unexplainable to anyone who has never done it, but one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.  I was really nervous until we jumped out of the plane from 12,000 feet, and then it was this overwhelmingly fun feeling of flying and taking in the beauty all around.  To me, it didn’t even feel like I was falling.  I was so relieved that I wasn’t scared anymore; I was just laughing and screaming with joy.  This is one activity I will do again.  For pictures of my skydive, click here.

In Wanaka, I also visited Rippon Vineyard, well known for its Pinot Noir and Rieslings, although I really liked their Sauvignon Blanc and it fit better into my budget.  It is situated just beside the lake so from the tasting room there are spectacular views of the area.  Another day I rented a bicycle to ride a trail along the lake to the next town.  This was additionally as stunning, for few people take this trail through the forest bordering the lake, the lake is pristine Rippon Winery(as all the water features are crystal clear snow fed waters), and it is incredibly quiet and peaceful.  In addition, there are several varities of wildflowers all over the countryside, in colors of yellow, red, orange, purple, blue, pink, and white.  I love them.  Riding back into Wanaka one passes the famous museum Puzzle World.  I didn’t want to spend a beautiful day inside this attraction, even though puzzles are my thing, but I did make a short stop to rest and test my skills at some of the free puzzles available to pass time with.  Some of them were incredibly hard, seemingly impossible, so I was happy when I was successful at a couple, less challenging ones.  For pictures of Wanaka, click here.

My next stop was Dunedin, on the southeast side of the island.  Dunedin is a city of 110,000 people, yet also home to New Zealand’s oldest university, University of Otago (Otago being the region), and the population swells to 140,000 when school is in session.  This is a very beautiful city, settled by the Scottish in the late 1800’s, which is noticeable in the architecture of the P1040127churches and cathedrals, railway station, and other various government buildings.  Apparently, 60% of Dunedin’s residents are of Scottish dissent.  There are a number of free attractions, including a National Art Gallery with a lovely collection; the railway station which was recently rated one of the most beautiful in the world; a large diverse Botanical Garden near the city center; and The Otago Museum which reminded me of a NZ version of The Museum of Natural History, and which was hosting an excellent exhibit on the earthquakes which have devastated Christchurch in recent years.  I hadn’t realized that CC experienced 4 earthquakes from Sept 2010-Dec 2011, and have had more than 13,200 aftershocks since the first quake.  It must be a scary place to live.  There are also plenty of to-pay-for attractions, such as the Cadbury chocolate factory, Brewery tours, The Settler’s Museum, and tours to Otago Peninsula to see albatross and penguins.  I didn’t do any of these, but I did hook up with a couple of backpackers who had a car and went out to the peninsula one day.

The Otago Peninsula is sparsely populated farmland with raw coastline.  The sand is soft and white, the dunes are huge and covered with different dune grass and wildflowers, and the beaches are often visited by seals, sea lioAt Tunnel Beachns and penguins.  We did see several seals and sea lions, and while we hoped to see albatross and penguins, we were not successful in that feat.  Oh well, hopefully  next time.  Regardless, we did incredible beach walks on Tunnel Beach and at Sandymount, which had some of the steepest dunes I’ve ever had to walk. For photos of Dunedin and Otago Peninsula, click here.

From Dunedin I headed north to Christchurch, where I met up with Dore.  We have been exploring the north of the south island for the last two weeks.  That will be in the next post.  Til then…


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G’Day Mates

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I had pretty much convinced myself that I was going to completely bypass Australia, and go straight to New Zealand.  This was all for financial reasons; Mom & I at the Opera HouseAustralia is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and Sydney just recently beat out Tokyo as the most expensive city.  I figured my money would go further elsewhere, and I had a strong desire to spend more time in New Zealand.  But my mother convinced me otherwise.  See, Mom had planned to travel to New Zealand and Australia on a tour to meet up with me, and the way the tour was going to time out, I would have missed her in New Zealand, so I conceded.  It actually worked out quite well because Mom’s free time on her tour was in Sydney, and Dore was living in Sydney, so that seemed to make it more plausible.

When in Sydney, you could really be in any city in the world, albeit a very beautiful city, it is big and international, like so many others.  Aside from the picturesque and well known Opera House, to me it is just another coastal town with harbors alive with restaurants, shops, and galleries.  Taking the ferry from one port to another offers fantastic views of the city, the coast, and the surrounding area, in addition to giving one the opportunity to get up close to Luna Park, the early 20th century style amusement park.  One evening we ferried to Darling Harbor for dinner, and another afternoon around the coast to Manley Harbor for a few hours.

The Opera House has several small theaters within it.  Mom and I did enjoy a On the Ferry to Manleycabaret style show there, which was loaded with young men sporting very fine hard bodies.  The acrobatics were incredibly impressive and could inspire one who wants to improve their own physical fitness.  We also enjoyed an afternoon walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and a day walking through St. James Park into the King’s Cross neighborhood to visit the Jewish Museum.  Australia has a very interesting Jewish history, and was one of the only countries after WWII that allowed Jews to immigrate with no problem.  Add in some very nice meals, and that was 2 ½ days with Mom.

Dore and I had another week until I flew to New Zealand.  She took off of work so we could enjoy a little time.  She was living in Maroubra, but the beach town next door, Coogee, offered a lot of great things.  The beach was beautiful and lively, there was a great yoga studio, and lots of nice food.  I had dinner at my first sushi train.  It was fun and yummy.   From Maroubra to Bondi Beach there is an excellent coastal walk with gorgeous scenery and views.  For pictures of Sydney, click here.

The next stop was Kurnell, a beach suburb of Sydney on the southern peninsula.  In the Philippines, I had met a very nice couple from here Walk to Coogeeand they invited us to come stay at their house, even though they weren’t going to be there.  Their nephew took great care of us the first night, and then he left for the weekend, so we had the house to ourselves for two days.  It was nice to be able to indulge in all the things a proper home has; wifi, laundry, stocked kitchen, cable, and comfortable beds, even if only for a couple of days.  It did happen to be Australia Day while we were there, and there was a big family-style celebration in Cronulla, the next beach over, which is where Captain Cooke arrived when he discovered Australia.  While it wasn’t a big deal for us, it was a pretty big deal for the Aussies.

From there we took the train to Katoomba, one of the main towns in the Blue Mountains.  This is a fantastic place.  There is a huge beautiful valley here, covered in tropical rainforest, with lots of gorgeous formations (including the famous Three Sisters), breathtaking waterfalls, and loads of hiking trails.  This was certainly the highlight of my time in Australia.  We did two days of serious hiking, both days arriving at amazing waterfalls.  Katoomba is a very inviting small town with many healthy coffee shops and cafes, including the Common Ground Café which is run by a cult called The Twelve Tribes.  They grow the majority of the produce they use on a farm near town, and bake all the bread they serve.  Dore figured it Katoomba Fallswas a cult after noticing how matronly all the women were dressed and all the stares she was receiving due to her low cut shirt, and she was right.  For pictures of Katoomba, click here.

One thing that is very different in Australia and New Zealand in comparison to Asia is that eating out is very expensive, so all the hostels have fully equipped kitchens.  There were two things I really wanted to try in Australia, Barramundi and Kangaroo, and succeeded in trying both.  Barramundi is a delicious firm, but flaky whitefish, which I had on a sandwich at the Common Ground.  Kangaroo we cooked up ourselves at the hostel one night, and it was some of the best meat I’ve ever had; mild, but flavorful, tender, yet lean.

In the end, I was glad that I had stopped in Oz, even if just for a brief visit to a very small area of this vast country.  My next trip there will be longer and I hope will encompass the north and west of the country.

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New Photo Albums

Friday, January 11th, 2013

These have just been uploaded:

London (2 visits, one when I arrived in Europe and the other just before leaving for India)

Paris, where I celebrated my 40th birthday

Antwerp, Belgium, famous for diamonds and seafood

Amsterdam, I love this beautiful city, its canals, and its artsy  funkiness

Linhemm/Copenhagen, visit with my lifelong friend and her family, Michelle, Morton and Luna

Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a beach town



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A Short Time in Sumatra

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Upon my arrival in Medan, the capital city of the island of Sumatra, I was immediately reminded of India, and not the India I love.  Being the country’s 4th largest city, it is crowded, busy, loud, dirty, and feels foreign, unlike so In Medanmuch of SE Asia.  I arrived at my homestay, which was the only budget accommodation I could find listed online, and realized that I was also back in a country which was like India in that even the places which are trying to offer a very high level of hospitality are just slightly missing the mark.  I was grateful that I had to spend only one night in this city before heading to the jungle.

With the help of a man at the homestay, I was able to book transport from Medan to Ketambe, a village of 100 people in the middle of Gruner Leuser National Park, one of the largest swatches of jungle still in existence in Indonesia.  Like so many other parcels of jungle in Asia, there are areas which are being converted to oil palm plantations, all in the name of money.  Tarzan SwingHopefully, the government will realized what they are doing before the orangutans, gibbons, and monkeys have no trees they can climb, no food to forage, no habitat in which they can exist.   But back to the transport.  Thankfully, I was able to get the last seat in an SUV transporting myself and 4 others up into the jungle.  This guaranteed the arrival at my guesthouse after an 8 hour trip, rather than getting stuck in the town of Kutacane.  Being in an SUV was better than being on a minibus, but still very difficult.  First, I was the only English speaker with several Indonesians; second, Indonesian men smoke like it is in style and without regard for others; and third, the driver made a pass at me, which thankfully he understood my response when I said “No!  I don’t know what you’re thinking, but NO WAY!”  I was concerned because I was making the last 80 minutes of the trip by myself, yet when we reached the town of Kutacane, a new driver took over.  Thank God, because I was feeling really uncomfortable about it.  After my arrival in the big city of Medan, and then this, I was asking myself “Why did I come hTrekking to campere? Why?”  Fortunately, my concerns were alleviated upon reaching my final destination.

I ended up spending 5 full days in Ketambe, 3 of which were on a trek in the jungle.  I had found my guide through Friendship Guesthouse, and apparently, without my knowing it, my guide is famous.  His name is John, and he was named after JFK.  He has been a guide in the jungle for 18 years, and he knows the area like the back of his hand.  There are thousands of trails in the jungle, and he can take any of them and end up at his planned destination.  The two of us hiked 2 hours into the jungle, our packs containing one change of clothes to sleep in, one swimsuit to bathe in, one towel, a sleep mat, tent, and food and cooking supplies, that’s it.  For those of you already thinking it, yes, my clothes stank unlike anytime yet on my trip; 3 full days of hiking through the sultry jungle, I was ripe.

This jungle is thick, green, wet (technically rainforest), and alive.  So, on a short trek like I did, the main thing people hope to see is orangutans; on longer treks deeper into the forest, people hope to also see rhinos, elephants, snakes, and In a Fallen Treemaybe a big cat at a long distance.  It is a beautiful experience to see orangutan in the wild, and I was lucky to see eight of them; 3 young males, 2 females with babies, and one old female.  They are amazing creatures, whom love to have fun swaying from tree to tree, hanging upside down, and just enjoying life.  They are much more like humans than any other monkey or ape.  First, all four of their hands are just that, hands.  They can hang any which way they feel comfortable because of it.  They don’t like being watched, and let you know with a squeaky sucking sound; and in the case of the old female, they may even break a limb to cast down at you when you are not listening to them.  And apparently they mate like humans; several different positions, tenderly, for an hour or so.  The other primates here mate like all other mammals, quickly from behind.  We followed one of the young males for an hour in hopes that he was looking for a partner, but after so much time, John decided that he probably wasn’t, so we left him alone.  In addition to the orangutan, we saw one white-handed gibbon (a small ape), severaYoung Male Orangutanl long-tailed macaques and Thomas’ leaf monkeys (aka the funky monkey because of the Mohawk they sport), many giant squirrels, seven-group hornbill, king hornbill, and a pair of rajah scops (I think) owls.  The owls were the big score, very rare to see, especially when the sun is still shining.  They are amazing to see in real life with their huge wise eyes and sharp beaks.  We did one night trek in which we were hoping to see a flying squirrel or a slow loris, or the rare sun bear, but we didn’t see anything besides some lightening bugs, glowing insects, and moths.   Still, it was way cool.  Pitch black with the flashlights out.

Our meals were very similar throughout the day.  Either fried rice or fried noodles with a similar mix of veggies; base of onion, garlic, chilies, and green beans; add tomato, potato, carrot, or ginger for variety; and every meal was served with an egg.  Indonesians love their eggs and eat one pretty much every meal.  I know eggs contain the good cholesterol, but between them and the Snake Fruitsmoking, there have got to be some health problems in Sumatra.  For a treat we’d have biscuits with tea (those are cookies for the American English speakers) or snake fruit, a tasty firm fruit with a sweet and sour flavor, named so because their skin is like snake skin.  Bathing was done in the river, which was incredibly refreshing after a day of trekking, not cold but cool enough to bring the body temp down.  And sleeping was generally peaceful with a lullaby of the river and cicadas.  We had some rain every day, usually around lunch, so the timing was perfect for a rest.  The trek was one of my most memorable experiences.

From Ketambe, I traveled all day by car, plane, bus, and ferry to the northern island of Pulau Weh, in the state of Banda Aceh.  This state has an interesting recent history as they were in the midst of a civil war when the tsunami hit December 26, 2004, which resulted in much destruction and devastation, and the end of the war.  Now open to tourists, Banda Aceh is also becoming more Gapang Beachaccommodating.  I stayed at a top notch dive resort right on Gapang Beach.  The bungalow I stayed in may have been my nicest accommodation all trip (aside from Los Angeles), and cost me so, too, but I had no way to know that the first come first served budget accommodation would all be full for the Christmas holiday in a Muslim country.  It’s okay though, it was a treat to myself and I just dove less.  I justified this with the fact that my next destination is the Philippines, specifically for diving.  Here I tried Aceh curry which was so different from any other curry I’ve ever had, made with roasted coconut, a recipe I will have to try to find and duplicate.

The diving in Pulau Weh is well known among those who dive in this part of the world.  It was beautiful, obviously different than home, but also so different then Thailand.  The first dive I did was called PP, or Pantee Peunateung, with beautiful coral structure and huge sea fans.   This site is known for big stuff, like sharks, which I did not see.  I saw my first Napoleon wrasse, and there were lots of big fish, trevally and tuna, and schools of chevron barracuda.  The second dive was Batee Tokong and this site is famous for eels, lots and lots of eels of the moray and ribbon variety.  I saw dozens, including some of the biggest morays I’ve ever seen, and others with interesting colorful markings.  Some of the coral here was like flying over hilly terrain; it was unlike anything I’d seen before.  There are lots of fish species here, too, including the elusive frog fish, which I did see.  Other fish include beautiful tropicals, lots of angels and butterfly fish, lion fish and scorpion fish, shrimp and nudibranches, octopus and trigger fish, and unicorn fish.  This all got me very excited for the diving I have to come.

After my third day it was time to take the ferry back to Banda Aceh for my flight.  I had caught a tuk tuk from the ferry to my hotel for the night, and the same driver was taking me to the airport the following morning. Here in Indonesia, the tuk tuk is basically a motor bike with a sidecar.  I swear I wasn’t sure we were going to make it.  About five minutes from the hotel the On way to Banda Acehmotorbike just stopped.  There was something wrong with the connection to the gas can, so after he was trying to get the motor going for several minutes, another driver came along and gave us a push, which got us going.  Then, about 10 minutes from the airport, it’s a 30 minutes trip, one of the tires on the sidecar pops.  So, I get onto the motor bike with him for the rest of the trip, but I was really wondering what else could go wrong.  It was rather comedic.

At the airport I had my first really good cup of Sumatran coffee, before heading out to Kuala Lumpur for one night before heading to the Philippines.  It doesn’t beat out Vietnamese coffee for me, but the coffee from Banda Aceh sure is good, too.  For pictures of Sumatra, click here.

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For the Love of Anchovies, and Other Tasty Morsels

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

For all the foodies out there, you may have heard that Malaysia is exalted for its food culture, and specifically on the island of Penang.  Malaysian cuisine is a clear representation of the myriad of cultures that have decided to call it home over the years.  Here you will find dishes from as far west as Lebanon and from every country of the east.  The greatest influence is from China, being the biggest immigrant group in Malaysia.  The island of Penang is over 60% One of my favorite thingsChinese, and this is apparent on every street you walk down in the food and the number of Chinese temples.  Other major influences include India and Indonesia, and the Malays have their own style of cooking, but who would have known that they have a love affair with anchovies, and yet it is so.  I tried a couple of their national dishes featuring these salty little fish, and don’t envision the soft ones that come in a can back at home.  These fish are pulled fresh out of the sea, salted and dried on the docks, and then served fried, crispy and crunchy.  If you like anchovies, you will love these.

Most often served for breakfast or lunch is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with fried anchovies, fried peanuts with herbs, and sambal, a spicy red sauce.  Sometimes it comes with cucumber, one time I got it with green beans, and almost always it is topped with a fried egg, another thing the Malaysians love.  Nasi Lemak can be really delicious, or it can be quite average.  The first time I had it was the best, but I kept trying.   For a snack there is Ikan Bilis, a yummy dish of Ikan Bilisanchovies fried with peanuts, chili peppers and onions.  When this one is good, it is really good, and goes great with an ice cold Tiger beer.   And then there are the dishes without anchovy, like Loksa, a soup of rice noodles, boiled egg, red onion, cucumber, fresh herbs and chilies in a red mackerel broth.  This one is different, and not my favorite, but I’m glad I gave it a try.  Their version of the pancake is called Roti Canai, and they love the roti in all of Malaysia; a thin, doughy rice pancake that is folded together and then chopped so it is easy to pick up and dip in dhal, the saucy lentil side dish it is usually served with (unless you get a sweet roti, and then it just comes as is).  They will put anything in the roti, from egg and cheese, to banana, to sardines or other meat, to brown sugar.  I like the roti, almost as much as the dosa (the thin Indian crepe like pancake), which you can also find here, but is called tosai.  And to drink with your roti or tosai is teh tarik, “tossed tea,” which is tea and condensed milk mixed by tossing from one glass to another.  Very tasty.  Then there is Rojak, fresh fruit tossed with Yum!peanuts in a sweet and spicy sauce.  Yum.  For those who don’t like the spicy so much, Malaysian food is not spicy like Thai, there is just a hint, palatable by most.  It is deliciously wonderful to be back in a place with authentically good Indian food (which I ate a lot of), with really fresh made Chinese food (which I ate a lot of), and with other variety when desired (Japanese, Korean, Bangladeshi).

So, where does one find these tasty morsels?  Like so much of SE Asia, at the night market, which basically means “on the street.”  There are several streets in Penang which host countless food carts, some open by day and others by night.  All you need to do is find a local who is excited to share the fabulous food culture of their country with you, and you will try many things, as I was lucky to do one night.

You may be wondering what else I did in Malaysia besides eat, and yes, I actually did some other things.  I started in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city.  It was okay, but didn’t capture my attention like Bangkok did.  The highlight there for me was the Museum of Visual Arts, a free contemporary art museum Scary Highfeaturing Malaysian artists.  They have a great collection, and it was a very cool, air conditioned break from the oppressive midday heat.  I also went to the top of the KL Tower, which is currently the 7th tallest building in the world.  It offers an expansive view of this growing city which hosts lots of new buildings with modern glass architecture, and old historic buildings.  It also gives one an opportunity to see all the green space around KL, where the jungle abuts the city limits.

From KL, I headed to The Cameron Highlands, and the main town of Tanah Rata, set high in the hills in the middle of the jungle.  This is a beautiful place, and the center of the Malaysian tea industry.  While it was similar to Munnar in India, it didn’t have the same fairytale feel to it that Kerala’s tea plantations offered.  Regardless, there are so many shades of green it would be impossible to count.

I did two day hikes while I was in the area.  The first hike I did with two Brits I’d met at my guesthouse.  We were told that the trail we’d chosen was one of the easier hikes; I think it was just one of the shortest because it was quite steep Hike in Tanah Rataand challenging, with the reward of an amazing view of the surrounding jungle, mountains and tea plantations.  The second hike I had started on my own, but fell into line with a man from Hungary, with whom I ended up completing this incredibly beautiful, secluded trek.  It was really stunning as it followed a river with a waterfall, and several small streams running through the forest.  Both treks ended in vegetable farms, several miles from town, and the number of buses are limited, so what to do but hitch a ride back.  The first day we were picked up by a Hungarian tourist, and the second by a Malaysian couple.  It’s so different culturally from the US in that regard, hitching is safe and common since so many people don’t have cars and often have to travel long distances.

My next stop was the island of Langkawi, in the far northwest of the country.  I’d heard that this was a beautiful island, but mostly I went there because I’d read online that it was a rock climbing destination.  Well, I ended up disappointed on both parts.  First, it used to be possible to rock climb there, Tanjung Rhubut the one man who did it had passed away and nobody else offered it; and second, the island is beautiful, and I will say it has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, Tanjung Rhu, but the island is very touristy.  It became a duty-free island a few years ago, and since then the tourism industry has boomed.  I did meet some great people there though, so that did make it more tolerable, in addition to the fact that the beaches there are covered in shells, and shell collecting is one of my all favorite pastimes.

I ended my time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, staying in the capital city of Georgetown.  As I’ve already mentioned, the food is amazing there, and one of the main reasons people go there, but it is also known for its street art, and one artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic.  All around the city there are Kung Fu Girlapproximately 30 works of fun iron sculpture and big wall murals by him, as well as paintings by others.  Searching out street art is one of my favorite things to do in cities.  Also on Penang, in the northwest there is a wonderful national park called Taman Negara, where the jungle meets the ocean, and with a challenging hike to the lighthouse for an expansive view.  The island is also home to the largest active Buddhist temple in the world, Kek Lok Si, which is incredibly impressive and colorful.  It houses the largest statue I think I’ve seen in all my travels.  It is of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and stands almost 100 ft. high.  For pictures of Malaysia, click here .

All in all, I really liked Malaysia.  The scenery is memorable, the people remarkable, and the food, I’ve already told you.  If I hadn’t made plans to go to Sumatra (i.e. plane tickets) I probably would have gone to Borneo and stayed in the country longer, but plans had been made, so off to Indonesia I went.  That story is to come.

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Love Knows Not Its Own Depth

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Who would have thought that arriving from Bangkok to Los Angeles would have been culture shock? Being that I’ve lived in the US for the better part of my 40 years, landing on US soil should have been like arriving home, but instead, it was a jolt to my senses, a reminder of why I decided to travel on the other side of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, LA was amazing.  It is a great city, at least the small area that I saw, and it is one that I feel drawn to, actually feel kindred with, yet after spending the last 8 months as a backpacker in Asia, it was…well…different.

[Let me just bring in an aside here, since the whole reason for this hiatus was to be reunited with my boyfriend, even if only for a few days.  I am incredibly blessed.  Most men wouldn’t wait for a woman who was traveling the world for a year, but mine is.  When I left, we had no idea what would happen and no solid commitment, but after a short while the realization of what we do have hit us both.  Matt had shared this Kahlil Gibran quote with me, “And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” and it rang true.  Matt Hughes is without question my best friend, my soul mate, and my true love.  It may have taken some time and life lessons to find him, but everything is in the timing, and this timing is just right.  He totally spoiled me, made sure I was in the lap of luxury for five days, and we had an absolutely fantastic time.  Staying just a few blocks from the beach, we spent our days walking and bike riding, and eating lots of amazing food.  Thank you, my love, for being so supportive, so patient, and for being downright awesome.  You fill me with great pride.]

It is interesting that only eight months ago I landed in Mumbai, feeling the shock of being in a foreign land where everything was completely different.  The myriad of languages, the style of dress, the tradition and culture, the public transport, the squat toilets, and that India is dirty, so dirty.  On the other hand, eight months later, Los Angeles felt foreign because everyone did speak my language, because it is really clean, because there is the culture of NFL and Thanksgiving, because I didn’t need to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I went, and because the taxi driver from the airport became very upset when he learned we didn’t know exactly where we were going.   This last point is especially distinct because if it had been anywhere in Asia the driver would have been thrilled with the prospect of an extremely high fare.  I mean, come on guy, how big can Playa del Rey be?  As we learned, it is not very big.

Playa del Rey is located right at the center of The Strand, 22 miles of bike trail right on the beach from Torrance to Santa Monica.  The commercial part of Playa del Rey is basically one road with several restaurants, bars, groceries, and a small strip mall.  We had two fun nights of drinking at Prince O’ Wales and The Harbor Room, and two great dinners at Tower 42.    Two days we headed north, rode through Marina del Rey with all its tall masts, Venice Beach with its funky vibe and street art, and Santa Monica well known for its old time pier.  We spent Thanksgiving on Venice beach, having dinner at The Fig Tree, and another afternoon of microbrews and gourmet burgers.  Another two days we headed south, through Manhattan Beach which is home to beach volleyball, Hermosa Beach and all its surfers, and Redondo Beach with its gaudier pier.  We liked the feel of Hermosa Beach, and spent two afternoons there.  It seemed a bit more down to earth then the pretentious Manhattan Beach right next door, boasting that it is home to many pro athletes.  In Hermosa we enjoyed an authentic Mexican dinner, and an afternoon of NFL and pizza.

All of these beaches have prime coastal real estate, crazy beautiful homes featuring floor to ceiling glass windows, and who can blame them, the view is amazing.  The beaches are wide and roomy, and the dunes are covered in succulents (these are a type of plant, for those who don’t know or have dirty minds), which we hope help to protect the dunes from erosion.  And on a beautiful day, which I think most of them are, there are hundreds of people of all ages out walking the beach, riding bicycles, playing Frisbee or volleyball, surfing, doing yoga, sunning, picnicking, etc…  It was great to see that Angelinos are such active people; that is a part of their culture that I could really resonate with since I love being outdoors, and the climate is so temperate there, that seems possible more days than not.

Los Angeles, I enjoyed my time with you.  I loved the foggy mornings and the cool nights; the long stretch of coast with mountain ranges in every direction; and the way one could be who they are.  Expect to see us again in the future.  For pictures of LA, click here.

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Pai in the Sky

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Have you ever landed somewhere and just immediately felt at home?  That’s how Pai made me feel.  Like what I’d been looking for for several weeks.  Yes, the beaches and islands of Thailand are amazing, but there is something about Pai that is unique.  It is small and laidback, the Thai are super laid back anyway, but the atmosphere here lends itself to go at one’s own pace, no need to worry about anything, no need to make plans.  My accommodation was a bungalow, next to a river, with beautiful green mountains on the horizon.  The guest house offers a funky bar playing ambient music where the masses can gather.  There is a common kitchen and dining area as well, which offers for social interaction, as well as allowing artists to show their work.  It makes for very homey surroundings.

I hadn’t known much about Pai, but I met two Australian girls on my flight from Phuket to Chiang Mai who had been before and mentioned that that was their final destination.  It sounded like an interesting alternative to Chiang Mai, the city of more than 300 temples, Thailand’s third largest, and while the old city area is contained and doesn’t feel so much like a big city, on the whole, it is busy and spread out, and unlike Pai, you cannot see the mountains in the distance.  My initial plan was to take a massage course in CM, so I investigated that option in Pai and found that there was an accredited school which had been there since the 80’s.  So, after 2 days in CM, my mind was made up.  If I’d stayed in CM, I would have become bored and spent way too much money, so after 3 days, I headed to Pai.

The day before heading to Pai, I did a visa run to extend my stay for another 15 days.  Depending on where you are in Thailand, and what you want to do, these runs can be made to anywhere in the region.  You just need to cross the border and come back in.  My run was to Myanmar.  Interesting, one cannot obtain a tourist visa at Myanmar’s border, but you can cross over for 24 hours just to take care of your Thai visa.  For me, the whole process took about 15 minutes.  See, I was on a tour that makes the visa run one of the stops, so, I was literally stamped in and out and back into Thailand in no time.

The tour was different and funny.  The first stop was a hot spring which was literally a pool about 6 feet in diameter that was in the middle of a parking lot, blocked off by a railing, with a fountain spouting from the center.  The last stop was at a tribal village, in which the tribes people don’t even live anymore.  They dress up in costume and sell goods to tourists.  The one stop I did enjoy was the White Temple in Chiang Rai.  The construction of this temple began only 15 years ago, so it is very modern in architecture and art.  It is medieval in that there are skulls and skeletons, and hands reaching to the sky with nails painted red and black in the midst of a sea of white.  The mural in the temple is by one of Thailand’s premier artists.  It was extremely different as it depicts super heroes, world leaders, modern technology, and even the disaster of planes flying into the Twin Towers.  The whole thing is a bit eerie and weird, and unconventional in comparison to the other Buddhist temples I’d seen.  For pictures of Chiang Mai/Rai, click here.

The drive to Pai is on a beautiful mountain road with over 750 switchbacks.  The road is flanked by jungle and mountains, and if you are one who gets motion sickness, this is certainly a trip on which you would want to take an anti-nausea med.  It takes almost 3 hours to go the 130 miles from Chiang Mai to Pai, and upon arrival, everyone is relieved to have made it without getting sick.  The main town is very small, one can easily walk it in an hours’ time.  The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, and cafes, as well as art galleries, book stores, and souvenir shops, yet none of it in a cheesy-touristy way.  Maybe because there is a clear combination of expat and Thai culture, maybe because Pai is a major destination for Thai tourists, or maybe because no one is hawking their wares, they just allow things to happen as they will.  There is a huge night market featuring tons of delicious food options, artists, performers, and vendors.  It is part of what makes Pai what it is, allowing visitors and locals alike to share in the nightly fun, social activity.

A big piece of the culture here is to light floating lanterns. It is often done in celebration or to mark an auspicious occasion.   They act like a hot air balloon, you light the wick and the heat from the fire causes the lantern to rise high into the sky.  It is a beautiful thing to see, especially when there are several of them floating at one time.   It was something I really wanted to do while there, and on my last night I lit one with my friends from Sweden.  We had a nice two day reunion, and this was a sendoff for all of us.

In addition to all that Pai offered, I enjoyed it because it gave me an opportunity to do whatever I wanted to.  There were no plans or deadlines or expectations of other people.  I got back into my yoga practice after five weeks (my cracked rib was finally healed) and practiced every day, I read and wrote every day, I practiced my new massage theory on willing bodies, I slept as late as I wanted, ate when and what I wanted (and with that I have to add, great healthy food, juice and tea bars in Pai), and for the first time in a long time felt like all my time was my own.  For those of you who are parents, or employed for that matter, I don’t know how you do it.  🙂  For pictures of Pai, click here.

So, Pai is one of those places I could see going back to.  I could even see staying there for a season.  See, I know I could make money.  It is the sort of places that lends itself to a yoga practice, but that is lacking there.  And every time I was offering a massage, there was interest from others.  And in doing those things, I would be doing what I love, and not have to do too much of it, because it is Thailand after all, and the cost of living would be easy to meet.

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I Get It…Southern Thailand

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There is something to be said for Southern Thailand.  Yes, it is touristy and expensive.  We’re basically talking about being in the islands here, but there is something magical about it.  It is tropical and exotic, laden with raw, uncut beauty; places where the jungle meets the coast, where limestone structures jut upwards out of the deep blue sea, where white beaches cascade as far as the eye can see, where colorful coral reef can be seen from the water’s surface.

I found the limestone structures to be stunning.  Colors of grey and tan, streaked with black and white and red.  My first sight of these structures was from the plane.  I’d flown from Saigon to Phuket, set in the Andaman Islands on Thailand’s west side.  I could see the small islands set into clear aqua blue waters.  The coral reef was visible, too.  It reminded me so much of flying into the Keys, except that the islands were mountainous and concealed in jungle, rather than flat and covered in mangroves.  These islands are much larger than any of the Keys, too.  I was excited to be in this island paradise for some time.   Ready to get my dive on, I hadn’t dove in sooo long.  Ready to experience new things.  Ready to stay in one amazing chill place for some time.  Mission accomplished.

I flew into Phuket to meet Dore at Naiyang beach, just south of the airport.  We spent one night there.  I wouldn’t recommend Phuket for those who want to get away from regular life.  It is crowded and busy, but Naiyang is a nice small town flanked by state parks with quick airport access.  Makes for a lovely stretch of beach with a bay you can snorkel in, really good seafood, fun bars.  From Naiyang, we took a communal taxi south.  I love those things.  Basically they are extended pickup trucks with benches built in.  You jump on and off at the back for a fraction of what a taxi would cost.  We ended up in Phuket Town, where we stayed for one night before catching the ferry to Koh Phi Phi.  Next time, I’ll skip Phuket town and just head to the islands.

We landed in Phi Phi Town, and decided to stay in a guest house on the far side of town.  We’d been warned that it wouldn’t be quiet, but we thought “how loud could it be?”  Well, Phi Phi Town is a party place.  Young kids getting obliviated to booming music and coming home with the sun all loud, and for myself & Dore, not one bar we wanted to hang out it.  The following morning, we took a longtail, to Rantee Beach, the small and tranquil beach on the east side of the island. A longtail is about 30 feet long.  They are the local style of boat propelled by what looks like a weed whacker run by a lawnmower motor.  They’re cool boats, with high sides, and tend to be the style that serves as water taxis.  There were two guesthouses on Rantee, each hosting one of the only 2 restaurants.  We stayed at Sunrise Bungalows, which was run by a very cool Thai man named Momo.  Depending on the tide, the bungalows were right on the beach or water’s edge.  There were some very cool people staying there, too, so it made for a great time.  If one wanted to go to Phi Phi Town, there was a challenging 45 minute hike through the woods, to the Viewpoint, and then down 350 stairs, only to come back up again.  There is a really nice coral reef just off the shore of the guest house, too.  Really beautiful soft coral, nice fish variety, including clown fish and eels.  It was great to get to snorkel in a beautiful place.  One day, a group of 8 of us took a longtail trip to 3 different spots to snorkel.  It was brilliant.

Next stop was Koh Lanta.  We went with this great couple from Hawaii whom we’d met in Phi Phi.  Unfortunately, the day we arrived Tate became really sick from something he ate, so for the three days they were there, he was bed ridden and Sasha had to hang out with us J.  Needless to say, we had a great time.  Rented motos and toured around, stopped at a waterfall, did some shopping, did some eating, watched the sunset, etc…  Lots of beautiful jungle on Koh Lanta, but must go south.

From there, our plan was to head to the Rai Leh Peninsula.  Interesting thing about this location is that the three beaches located here are cut off from the main land by a huge rock wall.  The only way to get there is by longtail, so one feels like it is an island.  What an amazing place it is.  While I’d mentioned that there is limestone everywhere, here in Krabi Provence, it is especially stunning.  Loaded with crags and crevices, holes and holds, it makes sense that this is a destination for rock climbers.  Ao Ton Sai is the northwest beach, located in a bay.  It is the backpacker beach, too.  Very cool, chill atmosphere.  Beautiful surroundings.  A nice place to spend some time.  Relatively cheap, for the islands. Plus, really good food.  Must eat at Mama’s Chicken, and try the tacos at Andaman Nature Restaurant.

The peninsula is rather small.  It was easy to circumnavigate it.  A jungle trail led from Ton Sai to Rai Leh East in about 20 minutes.   East would be considered the “town” of the peninsula; ATM’s, some resorts, some backpacker stuff, only free wifi on peninsula.  There is no beach there, only mangroves, but there is an amazing wall for climbing, and the first place I did my climbs.  Then, head west again, and find yourself in Rai Leh West.  This is where the beautiful beaches and pristine water for swimming are.  There are two bays that make up Rai Leh West, Patong Beach and West.  This side is for the big spenders, really nice resorts costing hundreds a night, so makes sense that the beach is really great, too.  For pictures of the Andaman Islands, click here.

It was here in Ton Sai that we met some amazing people and ended up hanging together for 10 days.  The cool Spaniards from Amsterdam who got me excited to climb, the Swedish ex-Army party guys, and Sasha from Hawaii.  We made for a great crew and I hope our paths cross again.  We all traveled to Koh Phangan together for the full moon party.  You know you’re getting old when drinking huge buckets of alcoholic beverages just doesn’t excite you, getting as fucked up as possible has completely lost its draw, and you’d rather be starting your day, then ending your night, when the sun comes up.  All good though.  It was fun to dance, fun to see people having a good time together, and I made it until about 2am.  I felt like I’d accomplished the full moon party.  Supposedly, there are some really nice beaches on the east side of the island, which we never made it to.  Leaving some things to explore the next time I’m on Koh Phangan, not during the full moon.

Dore and I said farewell to the crew and headed to Koh Tao to do some diving.  People had started seeing whale sharks again, and I was really hoping that we just might.  For me, that is one of the things on the “I really hope to see” list.  We didn’t, but we did do 5 dives, and it was very cool.  I felt really comfortable, we did a night dive, and it was great.  I hadn’t been on a dive vacation in years.  Chumphon Pinnacle, a reef sitting in 90-120 feet of water, was one of the best dives I’ve ever done.  The coral structure, both hard and soft, is just spectacular.  The soft coral, the anemones, and fans, and other plant life were probably the greatest number I’ve seen in one place.  On the night dive were these small plants with long leafy branches that waved in the current.  The fish life was way cool.  Saw cobia, moray eels, and a crocodile fish; blue-spotted sting rays, huge hermit crabs, and red-banded shrimp; big groupers, little groupers, and lots of kinds of parrotfish. Then, add in the clownfish, the angelfish, and all the other tropicals.  It was awesome to be diving again, and not in a mud hole looking for lobster.  Three days after I left Koh Tao, Dore dove with a whale shark.  Freaking awesome.  For pictures of the Gulf of Thailand, click here.

At this point, Dore and I said “goodbye.”  Of course, not for good.  I will see her in Sydney in a couple of months, but there is a good chance that this will be the last time we travel together like this.  What an amazing journey it has been.  Among other things, it has certainly been a testament to mine & Dore’s friendship.  When you travel with a close friend for four months straight, you get to know them really well.  For all the times that were challenging and difficult, that we argued or had to get away from each other, I’ll forever cherish our friendship, and regard our travel compatibility highly.  We did good, D.  I miss you, Sista.

I bid adieu to Dore and the islands of the Gulf of Thailand.  It was an all-day ferry and bus excursion from Koh Tao to Phuket, so that I could fly north to Chiang Mai.  Next blog, Chiang Mai, Visa Run, and Pai.

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Good Morning Vietnam…or…Watch out for Purse Snatchers

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, full of excitement, in anticipation of having an amazing time in Vietnam.  After Cambodia, I was really excited to be in a more modern city, and had hopes that Vietnam would be significantly different.  Cambodia had been a great visit.  I loved the sightseeing and the beach, but like Sri Lanka, I felt that as a tourist I was a target, that Cambodians got dollar signs in their eyes upon seeing me, to the point that I felt uncomfortable at times.  So, I wanted to see what else SE Asia had to offer, and I’d heard so many great things about Vietnam that were inviting.  Fellow travelers boasted about the beautiful countryside and jungles, the amazing beaches, and the food.

First impressions of Saigon were positive, all the energy of a big modern city, influenced by the French, and convenient for travelers.  As Dore & I headed out our first night there, the proprietor of our guest house gave us a warning to watch our bags, keep them in front, and hold onto them.  Tourists were targets of a different kind in Vietnam, still in hopes of big money, but in a different ruse.  We wandered through District 1, an area that caters to travelers with lots of outdoor eateries and bars, t-shirt and book stores, and massage spas.  Feeling the vitality of the city, we returned that night excited for the prospect of the next few days.

We spent the entire first day walking the city, taking in this Eur-Asian mecca.  The city is spotted with pocket parks; it has its own Cathedral Notre Dame, and an interesting combination of Asian and French architecture, both colonial and modern.  After dinner at a street side eatery, we wandered, doing some window shopping and perusing the area.  And then it happened, just like that.  We were standing on the side of the road looking at a spa massage menu, and in the blink of an eye, a scooter pulled up beside us, cut the strap on Dore’s bag, and was down the street with it in hand.  When you are told to beware of purse snatchers, take that advice seriously, because within a short time after that we met several other people who had been victims of the same kind, including a guy who had his iPhone grabbed right out of his hand.  Thankfully, Dore was not hurt, but now camera with pics that hadn’t been downloaded and phone are gone, as well as our enthusiastic feelings for Ho Chi Minh City.

We tried to stay positive for our time there, but needless to say, that had become difficult.  Regardless, we made the best of it.  We did end up going back for those massages the following day, which helped some.  And then there is always food.  One thing the French did for Saigon was leave them with a taste for really great food.  You cannot turn a corner in HCMC without passing a Banh Mi cart, this is the amazing baguette sandwich that starts with pate and then conforms to the desires of the customer dependent on the ingredients available.  There are cheese and wine shops, as well as patisseries everywhere.  One morning we had crepes, one night we had a fine French meal.  And speckled in there were lots of stops for Vietnamese coffee, which is now my favorite coffee ever.  It is rich and delicious with chocolate undertones.  Hot or iced, it is amazing.  This year, Vietnam actually became the largest exporter of coffee in the world, beating out Brazil and Colombia.  Well deserved.

We did manage to see some sights, too.  One afternoon we visited Reunification Palace, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked during the Vietnam War.  It is comprised of living quarters, conference rooms, meeting rooms, and underground bunkers.  Having been built in the 1960’s, the style is art deco, decorated with fine pieces of Asian art, furniture, and rugs.  Afterwards, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts, which had one level of Ancient pieces, but mostly displayed contemporary paintings, drawings, etchings, and sculpture.  It was really great to see modern art from an Asian perspective, and I was happy to learn that there are lots of impressive Vietnamese artists.

The next stop was Mui Ne, a surf beach (i.e. ex-pat community) almost directly east of HCMC.  As I shared in my last blog, it was on this journey that I decided that no matter how beautiful Vietnam is, I wouldn’t be able to see it like I want to this time around.  Still though, Mui Ne is a nice little fishing village, fun ocean and waves, stand-up paddleboards, kite surfing, and an amazing Indian restaurant called Ganesh (we ate there twice).   It was a wonderful relaxing time, allowing for time to unwind after so many cities and the drama of Saigon.  There is a fantastic night market along the beach consisting of dozens of seafood restaurants displaying live seafood in tanks, allowing you to pick exactly what you want to eat.  The lobster was amazing; razor clams were great, too.   The one downside to Mui Ne, I was coming in on a paddleboard and was knocked off by the surf in really shallow water, the board hit the sand and popped back up to jar me in my ribs, 5 weeks later I’m still healing what has to be a cracked rib.

From Mui Ne, Dore & I parted ways again.  I headed to Da Lat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  This city is considered by many to be Vietnam’s Little Switzerland or Paris, and when you are there you do feel like you are in the Alps rather than Asia.  Surrounded by farm country, this area supplies most of Southern Vietnam, including HCMC, with produce.  They grow everything from vegetables to flowers to fruit to coffee.  It is beautiful hilly green country, covered in jungle where it has not been cleared for crops.  I took a moto tour one day with an amazing guide, Viet.  We hit a flower farm, coffee plantation, silk farm, Elephant Falls, the big smiling Buddha, and the Crazy House.  The Crazy House is this wacky guest house in Da Lat designed by a Vietnamese woman who studied architecture in Russia.  It reminded me of an Asian art deco version of something Gaudi would have designed in Barcelona.  Bizarre, interesting, and oddly beautiful all at the same time.

Aside from the French influence to Vietnamese cuisine, they have done pretty well on their own.  Noodles are the thing in Vietnam, whether in soup, or fried or steamed and served as the main part of a delicious dish.  Pho, the rice noodle soup which is a breakfast staple, became one of my favorites.  In my opinion, when a person is served soup accompanied by a side plate piled high with greens, herbs, and sprouts to add to the soup as you eat, one cannot go wrong.  I quickly learned to watch out for the soups containing random organs and this blood pudding sort of stuff.  I realize some people may like that, but not me.  I tried it once, and didn’t even finish it.  For those of you who know me well, you know that that is out of character, but in my opinion, it’s an acquired taste, and my taste buds said “yuck.”   The Vietnamese have a couple of different desserts that they make out of beans, and I liked those a lot.  Some were served with coconut milk, others just boiled with sugar water, but somehow they came out as a satisfying dessert.  Like beer, beans are not just for breakfast anymore.  For more pictures of Vietnam, click here.

One quick night back in Saigon, and then I caught a flight to meet Dore in Phuket, Thailand.  The last 4 weeks have been spent island hopping, and it has been amazing.  My favorite part of SE Asia so far, yet that story is to come…

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