#14 – Threshers, Butanding, and the Home Stretch

Leaving sucks. I had three weeks left in Asia that I knew would fly by just as quick as the first 47 did. I can safely say though that these three remaining weeks were some of my favorite. Following my All Hands experience, I traveled to Padre Burgos, a coastal town at the southern tip of Leyte, Philippines. A group of us stayed at Peter’s Dive Resort, which was beachfront and super tranquil. There was awesome visibility and quite a few resident turtles right out front at the house reef….zero complaints.

DSC_0347

G0076980

G0046906

DSC_1956

In the past Padre Burgos has had a reputation for being a wonderful place to swim with whale sharks. Of course, this had me buzzin’. Ever since I touched down in SE Asia I’d been dreaming of the day I’d swim with these ever-elusive giants. Unfortunately, once I got down to Padre Burgos I discovered that sightings have been extremely rare the past couple years. Some think the eco-system was disturbed so heavily by Typhoon Haiyan that they’ve migrated elsewhere.

So I decided to put the whale sharks on the backburner and head to Malapascua Island to chase a different pelagic species I’d been dreaming about: the thresher shark. Threshers have these enormous scythe-like tails that they use to stun their prey – they’re mesmerizing. They usually hang out in extremely deep waters, but during the early mornings at Monad Shoal off of Malapascua, they come up to shallower depths of ~30 meters to get cleaned by the sucker fish. It’s a symbiotic relationship where all parties benefit: the sharks get cleaned, the cleaner fish get fed, and the humans get to watch in absolute fascination.

vlcsnap-2014-11-13-06h23m27s145

^Peep this on Youtube in 1080 if you actually want a clear visual of the thresher.

DSC_0465

DSC_0503

DSC_0484

I had an interesting last night on Malapascua. I’d sort of put the whale shark idea to rest for this trip. Donsol – the preeminent place to see whale sharks in the Philippines – was far, and it was too early in the season to bank on seeing the whale sharks there. Then I met a girl named Liza, who’d just come from there. She told me exactly what I needed to hear: the journey to Donsol is easily doable on my budget, and the whale sharks are out and about already.

And that’s all it took. Bright and early the next morning, I was off for the Cebu airport, rushing to catch a flight that I’d yet to even purchase a ticket for. Chaos ensued, but I managed to catch the flight and was on my way to Legaspi. One of my favorite things about this leg of the trip is the volcano you’re greeted with when you touch down there. It’s massive, currently erupting, and wildly close to the runway:

DSC_1110

A short van-van away from Legaspi is Donsol, home to the butanding (whale sharks) that roam the area from December to May. A group of friends and I hired a boat for two days, persistently seeking out the whale sharks, with zero luck. Our third day was my last chance. We set out on the mini-catamaran early in the day, determined to find us some butanding. When the chatter picked up amongst the spotters and they started pointing across the horizon, all of our hearts began to race. The driver throttled the engine up and we all scrambled to get our gear on. After complete pandemonium on deck, we hopped in the water, my heart beating at a speed I didn’t even know it was capable of. Then we spotted it – a dim grey shadow moving against the blue abyss. Here we are, these five humans with awkward flippers and snorkels on, kicking like absolute madmen to try to keep up with this gargantuan ten meter, twenty ton sea animal. The whale sharks coast through the water with ease, in an almost ethereal manner. This is surely the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.

G0167539

G0187583

The next day I was headed back to Bangkok for my final few days in Asia. Where did time go? It feels like it was just yesterday that I was taxiing out on the SeaTac runway. This whole experience has treated me incredibly well. To those I spent time with on my travels, thanks a billion for adding in one way or another to this highlight reel of a trip – it’s been an absolute dream.

#13 – All Hands – Project Leyte

After a few weeks in Burma, I returned once again to Bangkok to prepare for an experience I’d been seeking out for awhile. I was headed to the Philippines to volunteer with All Hands, an international aid organization that started Project Leyte in order to help the people of Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). This super typhoon displaced some 4 million people and wreaked absolute havoc on the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas region. During my week in Bangkok, apart from exploring more of the city’s legendary street food, I stocked up on the items most essential at base: plenty of mosquito spray, a mosquito net, rehydration salts, and work gear. By October 8th, I was off for Tacloban City to join All Hands.

Settling into base was intimidating – I was greeted by a group of sixty volunteers who all seemed to click and know each other like a tight-knit family already. I soon realized that this happens very quickly here. You’re around each other 24/7 – living together in small dormitories, dining communally, and working side by side eight hours a day, six days a week. My state of intimidation turned to utter euphoria. By the end of week one I was settled in and wholly immersed in the project. There’s an intense and abundant energy that flows here. People are motivated, they’re living with intention, and there’s a strong and intimate connection to the community that’s being served. And the locals of Tacloban – they’re another breed. The warmth with which I was received astounded me. The people give their thanks through radiating ear-to-ear smiles, heart-wrenching stories of their loss, and warm words of appreciation. To say that their resilience is inspiring would be a colossal understatement.

DSC_1793

DSC_1867

DSC_1879

DSC_0354

DSC_0360

There were quite a few sites that were in the works during my three weeks at Project Leyte:

Anibong // This is a waterfront barangay (neighborhood) that was devastated by the storm surge. The massive ships that washed up ashore are evidence of the typhoon’s sheer power. The barangay’s local elementary school was rendered unstable following the typhoon, and we assisted local workers in the deconstruction of the old structure and foundation digging/pouring of the new. Working at this site made me seriously appreciate the manual laborers who do this stuff day-in day-out. In developed countries, we’d use a tractor to dig ten of these massive 50″ x 50″ x 50″ holes in the compacted dirt. Doing this by shovel and rockbar is a whole ‘nother deal though.

DSC_0386

That’s the lower half of a huge 100 foot vessel that washed ashore during the storm surge. The bow of the ship can be seen towering over the main street in the photo below.

DSC_1504

DSC_0406

Another ship that washed ashore in Anibong.

DSC_0414

DSC_1508

New Kawayan // This is a transitional housing community built by the local government that All Hands was making improvements to, primarily digging gradient trenches to avoid stagnant water (dengue is a huge risk). The locals housed here were always lovely to us. This site presented me with the humbling opportunity to meet some of those most affected by the typhoon, which made the work that much more redeeming.

DSC_1870

DSC_1923

DSC_1898

Tzu Chi //All Hands provided a team of laborers to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a massively funded Buddhist organization out of Taiwan. This worksite was a blast. We were alongside tons of local workers, putting together two and three bedroom transitional homes.

DSC_1719

DSC_1768

DSC_1740

DSC_1735

DSC_1730

DSC_1779

San Isidro // Another transitional housing community that All Hands and local workers coordinated together on.

DSC_1821

DSC_1829

Decon for the Kids // At this site, we helped an orphanage clean and clear their property of debris, so that they could build a soccer field for the kids. Awesome site!

DSC_1654

DSC_1684

We were told by the owner of the orphanage that when the storm surge was hitting it reached the top of those shipping containers in the background. He and the orphans waited on the roof of the orphanage for hours for the water level to drop. Unbelievable

DSC_1675

DSC_1668

The culmination of my time volunteering with All Hands was on November 8th, 2014 – the one year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan. The day started out with a 5 AM walk to the city astrodome – where survivors gathered and lived after the typhoon – and it ended with a candlelight memorial that stretched region-wide. The city was bustling with energy, and to my surprise, everyone was smiling and almost seemed to be celebrating. This day was a really a wonderful way to end my time at All Hands, and it reassured me that I’d spent the previous four weeks very wisely.

DSC_0350

DSC_1702

To the volunteers I shared my experience with at Project Leyte, thanks for being so kickass. I can’t think of any other time in my life where I’ve been surrounded by so many genuinely great people. This is a memory I look back on daily and hold very close to my heart.

And to all who contributed to my fundraising, I really appreciate it. My time on Project Leyte was easily the most enriching experience I’ve ever had, and I feel proud to have friends and family that helped support this community that I grew to love.

If you’re interested in volunteering on Project Leyte (free bed and meals, helluva deal!), or you just want to learn more about the Leyte typhoon response, peep the All Hands website.

#12 – Burma

Part of Burma’s appeal to me is its mysteriousness. A country closed off from the world for decades, led for the greater part of the past century by a corrupt, democracy-repressing, and heavy handed North Korea-esque military junta. On top of that, the country is facing one of the worst and longest-running civil wars that the world has ever seen. Burma – controversially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military regime – is home to 135 distinct ethnic groups, many of them fighting tenaciously against the illegitimate government for their own autonomy. What has resulted is a constant and bloody clash between some of these ethnic rebel groups and the Tatmadaw (Burmese army). There are countless reports of the Tatmadaw infiltrating villages, shooting and killing those who try to escape, raping the women, and hauling off the remainder of the innocent villagers to labor camps. The situation is ugly. Numerous international organizations have called on Burma to clean up their human rights situation, to little avail.

Because of all of this, travel to the hermit country has been controversial in recent years. The National League for Democracy – Burma’s leading opposition party to the ruling military – called for a tourism boycott in the mid-90s until 2010, requesting that foreigners stay out of the country, as visiting it would essentially support the generals and validate their human rights abuses. Today, the military generals who once ruled the country are no longer in positions of ruling power (a taxi driver of ours claimed that they are “holding the tail of a tiger”), but it’s said that their deep pockets have funded a massive amount of the tourism infrastructure within the country – including tour and taxi companies, bus lines, and hotels. This means that the uninformed tourist who spends his/her dollars in Burma without doing a fair share of research could unknowingly line the pockets of these criminals without even knowing they’d done so.

But we in the states don’t want to be characterized by our grim past, and neither should the Burmese. This country is full of intriguing beauty. The people are some of the most fascinating I’ve encountered anywhere. And Burma possesses a degree of innocence that’s very absent in Thailand, its neighbor to the east.

Our first stop was the former capital Rangoon (Yangon), a bustling city of five million in southern Burma which I found to be riveting. I vividly remember walking through the city center in the sweltering 2pm heat, feeling like we’d just been chewed up by some monstrous animal, tossed around in his belly, and spat out several blocks later sweaty, hungry, and confused as all hell. This city is raw, rich in culture, ungentrified, and it heightens the senses with startling immediacy.

CSC_0131

This is the Sule Pagoda, where on August 8th, 1988, during a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration, the army massacred an estimated 3,000 people

8888shwe

Untitled

This is the size of the stack of money you end up carrying around in Burma, it’s absurd

DSC_0137

DSC_0145

Untitled

These little stalls are everywhere, satiating the Burmese’s appetite for the betel nut

DSC_0157

This right here is probably one of my favorite things I ate in Burma. A super greasy form of roti sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Plus the dude serving it looks like a Burmese Jesus.

Untitled

Shwedagon Pagoda, a must see in Rangoon

Our next stop was Mawlamyine, a coastal city 300 km southeast of Rangoon. This turned out to be my favorite spot in Burma. The city has seen little tourism so far, and as a result the people were super curious and friendly to us.

Untitled

One of my highlights of the trip through Burma is our time spent at this BBQ stall. We attracted a warmhearted crowd of people who I’m pretty sure – by the looks of it – rarely see a western tourist eat grilled chicken

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

While in Mawlamyine, Tara and I rented a scooter to explore the surrounding area. The highlight here was definitely seeing the Win Sein Taw Ya Buddha, the largest reclining Buddha in the world at 180 meters long. The Burmese tourists there were so ridiculously happy and enthused to talk and take pictures with/for/of us – it was a really memorable experience.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

The yellowish white paste you see on their faces is called Thanaka. It’s a cosmetic paste that protects from sunburn and cools the skin. Both men and women alike wear the Thanaka

From Mawlamyine, Tara and I took a bus up north to Bagan – a dusty ancient city scattered with some 2200 picturesque temples and pagodas.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

One of my favorite parts about Burma is its affinity for tea. Hot, extra-sweetened, and milky – you can find tea shops serving these little cups of glee on just about any block. During the morning, afternoon, and late evening, these shops are completely packed (interesting though – only men). My guess is that this tea-time tradition is one that was picked up during the British rule from 1824-1848.

After several days of cruising around Bagan, we headed towards Lake Inle, which by comparison to Mawlamyine is a tourist mecca. The lake is gorgeous and is home to 70,000 people, many of whom live on wooden stilt houses on and around the lake.

We explored the lake and one of its local markets by a hired longtail boat with a pushy tour guide…which was super unfortunate. But the lake itself and the commerce that moves on and around it is remarkable.

Untitled

Untitled

DSC_0613

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Novice monks playing soccer in the monastery courtyard

Untitled

Our trip to Burma ended with an overnight bus ride to Mandalay, where we caught our early flight back to Bangkok. Altogether I really enjoyed our time here, and I’m stoked that the country has opened its doors to tourism.

Next up: The Philippines

#11 – INDO PT. II

In terms of natural beauty, Indonesia tops my list. The country spans 5,000 kilometers – about the distance from California to Bermuda. Within the massive archipelago are some 17,000 islands and 127 active volcanoes, which seem to soar above the clouds in every direction you look. There’s just way too much to see here, and never enough time to see it.

So, with 30 days left in the country, we got right to it. Tara flew in from Australia, and the following morning we took off on a flight for Flores island, East Nusa Tenggara.

GOPR5635

Untitled

We spent our first night in Labuan Bajo, a port and stopover town which most visitors to Flores inevitably end up passing through. I found this predominately Muslim town a distinct contrast to my first month of Indonesian travel on Hindu Bali and Nusa Lembongan. The town itself isn’t anything to write home about, but the views out to the surrounding islands are superb and made me feel like I was visiting Mars. I vividly remember watching this sunset from the balcony of our bungalow, while the nearby mosque’s adhan blared over a crackling loudspeaker – a tune somewhat foreign to my ears. Looking out over the vista, I felt like the whole experience in that exact instance was so fitting: this new region we’d never before visited, the unfamiliar sound of an Islamic call to prayer, and this consuming desire to see what lie just over the horizon.

Untitled

Both Tara and I wanted to beach it for some time. We’d heard of this tiny private island called Kanawa, but seeing as the island limits the number of visitors and reservations are required weeks in advance, we assumed it’d be a no-go. In some ridiculously lucky turn of events though, we ended up being able to book a cheap beachfront bale bale for two nights and a tent for a third.

Untitled

Kanawa from a distance

Untitled

IMG_6667

These little black tip reef sharks were along the dock to welcome us. This got me stoked!

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Beachfront bale bale, literally a 10 second walk to the ocean. Doesn’t get much better.

Untitled

IMG_6643

Obligatory dock shot.

IMG_6630

Untitled
The reef in Kanawa was an absolute dream. 30 meter visibility and some of the most vibrant and rich coral I’ve ever seen. And plenty of fish! But unfortunately our three-day search for the sharks was unsuccessful.

Our days ended with a hike up the mountain behind the bale bale to get a panoramic view of the sunset. I’ve never been to a place like this.
Untitled

IMG_6576

IMG_6607

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Nights were quiet. There was one restaurant on the island, and unfortunately the food was expensive, mostly western, and mediocre. That’s my only qualm about this place though! If Kanawa had a decent local-cuisine restaurant, we probably could have stayed there for a week. But it didn’t – so after 3 days of eating overpriced shit-spaghetti, we were ready to head back to the mainland to plan out the rest of our time on Flores.

While at first I was impartial to the small city, I developed a liking for Labuan Bajo after being introduced to my first nasi ayam goreng (rice and fried chicken) at a local makasan padang (restaurant) there.

IMG_6896

SMACKIN

I was worried that after spending months in Thailand where the pork is heavenly tasting, I’d have trouble going cold turkey in a Muslim country like Indonesia. Turned out to be a piece of cake. All in all we must have eaten this dish a solid 20 times during our month here. And it’s easy to do that, cause every joint cooks it up a little differently.

Generally, you get a piece of fried chicken (ayam goreng), and a scoop of white rice (nasi putih). The small circular nugget on the plate next to the chicken is called perkedel. Think of mashed potatoes dipped in egg yolk and then fried. Perkedel is an absolute must with this meal. The red chili salsa in the top right is called sambal – also 100% necessary. You won’t be served a meal without the stuff here. The small bowl of soup is called gulai, and is like a jackfruit coconut curry – I’d argue it’s what holds the entire meal together. The result of combining all of these is an unbelievably tasty mouthful of flavors and textures, all for right around $2-3 USD.

IMG_7045

IMG_7014

Following our discovery of this culinary masterpiece, Tara and I decided to take a tour out to Rinca island to see the Komodo dragons. Unfortunately, the only way to see them is by taking an organized group tour. Ours was fine – except for the the obnoxious and condescending couple that spoke to the locals like they were misbehaving six-year-olds, and the uptight couple with an “appointment” they needed to be back for at 3pm – they got real fussy when they realized we’d be cutting it tight. The dragons were impressive though! They were massive, and sort of just laid there and stared at us as if they were trying to decide between taking another nap or eating the pudgiest person in the group.

IMG_6818

IMG_6813

IMG_6848

IMG_6808

During the boat ride out to Rinca we’d be cruising along and all of a sudden would just come up on these electric blue patches of water with dry arid islands in the background. Once again…I’ve never seen a place like this. For the Washington locals, it almost reminded me of a super tropical Lake Chelan.

Untitled

Tara having a splendid time on our Rinca tour

Following the Rinca tour, Tara and I decided to rent a motorbike for a week and try and make it to the Mt. Kelimutus crater lakes, some 400 km east across Flores. We set off and were instantly stoked to be exploring by bike. As Labuan Bajo’s drier surroundings gave way to the rural low-mountain villages, the people became friendlier and friendlier. Little kids scampered across their family’s farming land shouting “hey mister!” between their beaming smiles of just a few teeth. By Ruteng – 100 km later – we were overwhelmed by the utter warmth of the people. We’d stop on the side of the road to snap a picture and would make a handful of curious new friends – there was almost always a group of little kids with ear to ear grins laughing uncontrollably at who knows what, and several times a random driver or two would pull over just to make sure we were alright. I’ve never encountered this type of genuine affability before, and I’ll always remember how welcoming the people of Flores were to us.

Unfortunately about 100 km into our route Tara put her calf down on the scooter’s literally piping hot exhaust, which normally has a plastic cover over it. It turned out to be a seriously gnarly burn that got infected and sort of dictated where we ended up going later in our trip through Indo. Moral of the story: no more renting motorbikes unless they have exhaust covers.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 6.58.30 PM

IMG_6980

Our first night on the road was in Ruteng, a cold mountain town where Tara and I stayed in a nunnery. There’s a strict 9pm curfew when the nuns close the gate, and we were gently woken up at 5:30 am by the choir’s dreamy hymns emanating from a nearby hall. There were no double beds in the entire nunnery, and it seemed that the sisters had a vested interest in making absolute sure that Tara and I were sleeping separately in our room’s small single beds. Needless to say, this was a super unique experience.

Of the 250 million people living in Indonesia, 87% are Muslim, making it the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. But Flores island, due to its early beginnings as a Portuguese colony, is predominately Roman catholic. I found it pretty intriguing to see such deeply-rooted Catholicism in an elsewhere Muslim-majority country.

IMG_6900

The nunnery – Kongregasi Santa Maria Berdukacita

IMG_7205

Spider web rice fields, just outside of Ruteng

IMG_7183

IMG_7196

Following Ruteng, we rode 140 km east to Bajawa, a mountain town both colder and foggier than Ruteng, which for me was already frigid after having acclimated to the humid 90° SE Asia heat over the past 9 months.

IMG_6971

IMG_6959

IMG_6963

IMG_7144

Yung Axil Rose at our hotel in Bajawa

At this point, both of us just wanted to be back on Kanawa. It was cold, wet, and foggy on nearly every leg of our trip so far. But we couldn’t turn back now that we’d made it this close to Mt. Kelimutus. So we moved onwards towards Moni, which was the base for exploring the mountain and its apparently epic colored crater lakes. Thankfully the route brought us back down to sea level through Ende, where we could finally take off our heavy jackets we’d purchased in Ruteng.

IMG_7044

That was short lived though – it wasn’t long before we were back up in the fog and drizzling rain, climbing our last leg to reach Moni by nightfall. But…we made it! Moni is a tiny little mountain village that’s constantly in the clouds, and it was literally wet for the entirety of our 48 hour stay there. So we waited and waited at our guesthouse for some of the fog and rain to clear, and decided to make our way up Kelimutus to see these lakes that we’d traveled 400 km for.

Once we’d made our ascent, we peered over the railing to take a look into the crater at the marvelous lakes, and this here is what we were greeted with:

IMG_7099

This is what it looks like on a clear day:

Deflated and disappointed, we hopped on our scooter and began the return voyage. Four days later, we were in Labuan Bajo once again, bummed to have not seen the crater lakes, but stoked on the experience itself of driving the 800 km journey. We headed west back to Bali, where we spent our last twelve days in Indonesia between Ubud and Amed – two of my favorite places I’ve been thus far:

IMG_4276

IMG_7275

G2106609

IMG_7248

IMG_7235

IMG_4163

Tara and I then headed to Bangkok for a week to sort out our Burmese visas and eat (the latter of utmost importance):

DSC_1380

DSC_1381

DSC_1326

DSC_0019

DSC_1468

CSC_1495

Next up: Burma

#10 – INDO PT. I

By the end of my trip through Cambodia, I’d started getting really homesick. Luckily for me, I’d be spending 11 days in Thailand, between Surin – where some Thai friends and family of mine live – and Bangkok, which – despite earlier in my blog I dismissed as lackluster – I’ve really grown to love. I’m always excited at the thought of returning to Thailand, even if it’s just for a few day layover. My friends in Surin never cease to remind me exactly why fell in love with Thailand in the first place: the warmth of the people and the unparalleled tastiness of the food. 11 days there turned out to be exactly what I needed to recharge a little bit and cure my homesickness.

IMG_5175

IMG_5179

IMG_5194

IMG_5259

IMG_5264

So after spending a week in Bangkok organizing my Indonesian visa and stuffing my face with copious amounts of Thai food, I set off for the famed Indonesian island of Bali. I started off in Kuta, which is definitely an exception to Bali’s allure for me. The surf there is good – but that’s about it. My buddy Justin met me a few days after my arrival and that was when my Indonesia leg of the trip really felt like it took off. We started out with a few days of (attempted) surf, then headed out to Nusa Lembongan, an island off the coast of Bali boasting gorgeous natural beauty. The majority of Bali and Nusa Lembongan’s residents are Hindu, as opposed to Muslim – Indonesia’s predominant religion. I’d never been anywhere like this before. Hindu offerings – usually little woven plant trays filled with fresh flowers, candy, lit incense, and small coins – lay everywhere; at the base of the stairs, in the restroom, in hallways, on the sidewalk outside of the house/restaurant, you name it…the offerings were everywhere and at all hours of the day. I was told that the offerings were set out, and that in exchange, the bearer wished for good things to come to their friends, family, and patrons. This ubiquitous aspect of Balinese Hinduism really adds to the island’s easygoing and warm atmosphere.

Balinese Canang Offering
Photo by Kokkai Ng

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Following Nusa Lembongan, Justin and I headed back to Bali for a motorcycle trip around the island. Unfortunately it’s difficult to find anything larger than a 150cc available for rent, so we settled for two KLX 150s – not too shabby 🙂

Untitled

Our first day’s route took us from Kuta to Ubud, a culture rich and evergreen oasis north of Denpasar. Our hotel was super close to the Monkey Forest, so early every morning we were woken up by these pesky macaques wreaking absolute havoc on the well-kept hotel grounds — super entertaining.

Untitled

IMG_4323

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
Nasi campur – an Indonesian favorite

Our second leg of the trip – Ubud to Amed – was gorgeous. Open sweeping rice fields surrounded us, and there was much less traffic than on our first leg. We made it a point to take a detour to Gunung (Mt.) Agung, a 10,000 foot volcano located on the northeast side of the island. Turns out it was way too foggy to see a thing, but it’s all good, as we were plenty satisfied with the view from afar.

Untitled

IMG_4260

Untitled

Amed was easily my favorite place on Bali. It’s a sleepy little string of coastal villages with black pebble beaches, killer snorkeling, friendly locals, and this view of Gunung Agung that I’ll never grow tired of:

Untitled
Every night for sunset people head up to this viewpoint. The locals bring their guitars and sing some Bob to wind the day down. It’s euphoric.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
Fresh mahi mahi for 25,000 Indonesian rupiah (US $2) – my favorite meal in Indo right here.

Untitled
Soto ayam – chicken soup

Untitled

Untitled

From Amed, we cruised north along the coast through Singaraja and on to Pemuteran – the base for exploring the rich waters of Menjangan island. Visibility was incredible and the coral and marine life was super vibrant. Plus, you can spot a few of neighboring Java’s massive volcanoes from the boat – really adds to the beauty.

Untitled

Untitled
Babi guling – Suckling pig, a delicacy on Bali.

Untitled

Untitled

After a couple nights in Pemuteran, we were ready to head out on the last leg of our trip some 160 km along the coast back to Kuta.

Untitled

Untitled
More babi guling!

Justin’s trip was coming to a close – we planned to have two nights back in Kuta to surf a bit before he took off back to Seattle. But at 3 am, I woke up with a dislocated left shoulder. No clue in hell as to how it managed to slip out in my sleep, but I’m damn thankful that I had a friend there to help relocate it. Thanks Justin! I spent the next couple weeks between Ubud and Amed, resting and recuperating in order to get my shoulder back in usable condition. I’ll need surgery once I’m back stateside, but all is good so far as I’m here in the Philippines using my shoulder strenuously on a daily basis. Keep sendin’ the healthy vibes my way!

#9 – Seus’day Cambodia!

I crossed from Vietnam into Cambodia at the Ha Tien border – the southernmost crossing that the two countries share. I was fully expecting to have to shell out some exorbitant amount of money because I was a foreigner crossing on a motorcycle, but the border guards were super friendly and let me right through without even taking a single peek at the paperwork for the bike.

G0206764

I had just finished motorbiking 2700 km through Vietnam, and I seriously needed a break from two wheels. I’d heard people rave about this beautiful little island off of the Cambodian coast called Koh Rong, complete with soft white sand beaches and clear aquamarine waters…you’ll never hear me say no to that combination. It turned out to be exactly the type of reward I needed after spending a solid month on Vietnam’s highways. I left my bike at a hostel in Otres Beach, Sihanoukeville, and I was off for Koh Rong. I ended up sticking around the island for a week. Here’s why:

IMG_4784

IMG_4841

IMG_4819

IMG_4869

G0216804
Some local Khmer fishermen invited us on their boat for whiskey and fresh crab at 9 in the morning. What resulted was an absolute shitshow by mid-day and probably the highlight of my trip through Cambodia.

G0267018

G0267034

Once my time had expired in Koh Rong, I headed back to the mainland and sold my bike, without even so much as a moment of hesitation once the offer was on the table. As much as I loved my time on that bike, I was ready to part ways. Monsoon season was in full swing, and riding on the highway in torrential Asia downpour is pretty much a death wish. So for the first time in months I hopped on a bus, from Sihanoukville north to the country’s capital: Phnom Penh.

IMG_4897

IMG_4902

I ended up really enjoying this city, which surprised me since I’d heard quite a few people hate on it earlier in my travels. It’s certainly not filled with air-conditioned shopping malls, donut shops, and fried chicken stalls like Bangkok is; I found it to be a bit eye-opening and rough around the edges. This is where my visit to Cambodia became more sobering, and rightfully so. I took a visit to S-21, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge prison, which is now a museum, as well as the Killing Fields, one of the 150 mass grave sites that has been unearthed across the country.

I can’t even illustrate how harrowing visiting these two sites was. Some 20,000 Cambodian prisoners passed through S-21, and only 12 made it out alive. The prison grounds have such a heavy and somber vibe that you can almost stick your hand out and feel it. Our guide explained to us that his mother and her aunt were the only survivors in their family. This just reiterated to me how viciously the genocide took from every single person. Visiting the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was the rotten cherry on top after S-21. Skulls from the mass graves have been assembled into a stupa, loudly reminding you of the brutal things the human race is capable of.

IMG_3940

From Phnom Penh, I made my way up to Siem Reap – the base for exploring the Angkor temple complex. I spent five days here, two of which I pedaled around on a bike. This place is heaven on earth if you’re a temple nerd. You could spend a week touring and still there’d be more to see. It’s crazy.

IMG_4923

IMG_5008

IMG_5133

IMG_5095

IMG_5156

IMG_5065

IMG_4933

My experience in Cambodia was a bit heavier than anywhere else I’d been in Southeast Asia. Poverty is endemic throughout the country, and the genocide under the Khmer Rouge was always lingering at the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but see the impoverished conditions that so many lived in as a result of this relatively recent tragedy. The Khmer Rouge mercilessly wiped out 21% of the country’s population only 35 short years ago. I’m not too sure about any of you guys, but many other tourists that I spoke to in Cambodia shared the same feeling of embarrassment that I felt knowing barely anything of the Khmer Rouge or its atrocities. Perhaps this is a piece of history that isn’t encouraged in grade-school history teachers’ lesson plans because it sheds poor light on the US? We did have somewhat of a loose coalition with the Khmer Rouge after all. There’s no reasonable excuse for my lack of knowledge on this subject prior to arriving in Asia…and I’m not looking to pass the blame for my own ignorance. I guess that I just felt a little surprised and peeved that I didn’t hear a single thing about this during grade school. Perhaps plenty of kids did learn about Cambodia’s brutal history during their schooling and I’m one of the oddballs that didn’t. But talking with young tourists in Cambodia – North Americans and Europeans alike – I realized that I was not alone in feeling the way that I did.

#8 – 2700 km through Vietnam

Untitled

After an odd last night in Laos, I crossed the border to Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, in the far north. The motorcycle riding I had done in Laos and Thailand barely prepared me for the style of driving I was to encounter in Vietnam. My first wakeup call was no later than 20 km after crossing the border, when a small semi-truck completely barreled out from a side street in front of me. It was like a car chase scene straight out of a movie. This was the first of many times that I came to a near-screeching halt on my bike because of what seems to be the utter disregard that bus and truck drivers have for motorcyclists on the road. It’s absolutely insane. Needless to say, I definitely prefer the less populated Vietnamese countryside over the cities. It’s completely sublime. The sweeping rice fields and blue skies were dreamy on a bike. The countryside – particularly in the far north – was also the most remote and the least touristy place that I’ve been to thus far on my trip. Oxcarts, water buffalo, roosters, cows, horses, and dogs populate the muddy, pothole-laden streets more than traditional vehicles do, and western faces are extremely few and far in between, and some days, completely absent.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
My first breakfast in Vietnam. Fresh cooked wide vermicelli noodles, topped with fried shallots and rousong.

I headed northeast from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa – a small and touristy mountain town about 50 km from the Chinese border. The scenery was superb and the culture extremely diverse. Sapa is home to six different groups of ethnic minorities, Black Hmong, Red Dao, and Giay to name a few. When the rice paddies do not require their day’s work, many of the hill tribe women come into town to sell their handicrafts and trekking tours.

IMG_4115

Sapa is interesting; you have the amenities of a fairly modern and developed town. And then you can walk an hour or two into the villages of the ethnic minorities, where most live very simple subsistence-based farming lifestyles and have preserved a number of their archaic traditions. For example, some of the Red Dao females still shave their eyebrows because they consider a completely hair-ridden face to be alluring.

Untitled

Untitled

One of my favorite parts about Sapa was the 7th floor dorm room I stayed in. It cost me $5/night and the view was killer. Watching the clouds roll over the mountain range directly in front of it was sweeeeeet.

IMG_3668

I enjoyed Sapa, but the constant presence of Hmong women relentlessly trying to sell me something eventually became an annoyance. If you’re headed there, I’d suggest staying away from the very center of town for this reason alone. Even walking 50 meters to get a breakfast banh mi was impossible to do without getting swarmed. It’s a good thing they’re so damn tasty. After 4 days in Sapa, I headed onwards towards the capital: Hanoi, home to the dish that was easily the pinnacle of my Vietnamese eating experience: Bún chả Hanoi!! (Thanks to our friend Tommy Lee for teaching me the correct pronunciation).

Untitled

Alright, so you get a plate of room temperature rice vermicelli noodles. Then you get a bowl of soup broth – a little on the sweeter/saltier side – to which fresh off the grill pork is added, usually in two forms: fatty skewered pork, and pork meatballs. Thinly sliced pickled vegetables are either included on the side or in the broth. A picture doesn’t do this dish justice, nor does my lackadaisical description. At 30,000 Vietnamese Dong ($1.50 US), it’s a winner. I’m not sure if I should be proud or ashamed of this, but one day I came back to the same location three times for my bun cha fix. I’ll choose proud.

I found Hanoi to be an absolute eating paradise. I was in denial that it would match Chiang Mai, Thailand in terms of the abundance and variety of delicious food, but it completely did. Nearly every street in the old quarter of the city is lined with these miniature tables and stools to pop a squat at and enjoy some cheap eats and pint or six of bia hoi (fresh beer).

Untitled

Xoi Xiew Thit Kho – A Hanoi specialty – yellow sticky rice topped with mung bean paste and fried shallots, served with slow cooked pork belly (Thit Kho). Succulence.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Vietnamese coffee and tra da (pronounced chara – green tea). Cheap, strong, and ubiquitous.

Untitled

From Hanoi, I tossed my bike and myself on the train to Dong Hoi, where I rode 50 km north to Phong Nha, which is home to some massive cave complexes — most notably Son Doong (the largest cave in the world). At $2000 US for a week-long trip, Son Doong was a bit of a stretch for me…but thankfully there were plenty of budget-friendly caves to visit. One of them is completely pitch black inside and only accessible by kayak, really adding to the Indiana Jonesy feeling of it all. You begin the cave exploration on gravel, which turns to sand, then dirt, then dirt with a few puddles, and by the end you’re wading through thigh-deep mud the consistency of melted Hersheys chocolate. Besides finding dried mud in my ears a week after the cave tour, it was wicked.

vlcsnap-2014-08-11-20h02m47s227

Untitled

After two nights in Phong Nha, I headed onwards towards the Vinh Moc Tunnels, an underground complex where roughly 300 Vietnamese people hid to avoid the bombs and American troops during the US-Vietnam war. The first day I actually couldn’t find the tunnels (ha!), which made me realize this is probably how the Americans felt back in the day when they too searched for the tunnels to no avail. So, we returned the next morning determined and eventually successful, after a Vietnamese girl dropped a pin on Google Maps for me exactly where the tunnels were. The tunnels reach depths of 23 meters deep and stretch 2 km long, and are extremely impressive. The local population safely lived in these tunnels during a period of six years…talk about resilience.

Untitled

Untitled

Following a night in Quang Tri after the Vinh Moc tunnels, I rode further south from Hue to Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass, which was easily one of the more breathtaking stretches of the trip.

IMG_3765

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Once I arrived in Hoi An I quickly realized why everyone loves it there. It’s a relaxed little riverside city with the ocean super close by, there’s delicious food everywhere, and the people seem to be moving at a slower pace than everyone else in Vietnam. I stayed in a homestay called “Under the Coconut Tree”, which I can’t recommend highly enough. The staff members were some of the friendliest people I’d met in Vietnam, the food was tasty and cheap, and it was a 100-meter walk to the beach. Hoi An definitely ranks as my second favorite city in Vietnam, after Hanoi.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
The smiley staff at Under the Coconut Tree.

Untitled

Untitled
Cao lầu – a Hoi An specialty consisting of homemade chewy noodles, soy-marinated pork, deep-fried crisps, and fresh greens. It’s a palatable mixed bag of textures that go so extremely well together. Apparently the secret is that the noodles are made using water from centuries-old wells around the city.

Untitled
Mangosteen….I had a bag of these on me the entire month in Vietnam.

Untitled
One of my many repair pitstops.

I was heading into town one morning when I spotted a little sign on the side of the road advertising banh beo, another specialty from the Hoi An area. I was slightly hesitant at first to join the large Vietnamese family gathered at their table, but they enthusiastically invited me to sit with them, and damn was I glad I did. Banh beo turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten thus far in Asia. For 2500 Vietnamese Dong (that’s about ten cents), you get one miniature steamed rice pancake, topped with fried shallots, ground peanuts, chilies, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and in my case, some sort of garlicky orange peanut sauce. I noticed the tall stacks of empty plates next to each person and then felt it was completely appropriate to order eight of them for my first time, which was met with a warm applause and collective grin by the entire family. I returned to the same place each morning while I was in Hoi An, but I’ll always remember my first!

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

This bánh mì was my first meal in Hoi An. Heo quay is this crispy roasted pork meat, which I’ve discovered that the Thai and Vietnamese are exceptional at cooking. This stall is another place I visited daily for a $1 sandwich.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
Sidewalk BBQ.

I set off and rode south until my lower engine seized near Tuy Hoa, about 550 km north of Saigon. This really sucked. At this point in my trip I was growing tired of traveling on my bike, and the engine seizure just exasperated me that much further. Saigon was close on the horizon though, and should I decide I wanted to sell my bike, I could do it there. All in all it cost me US $55 to get the necessary pieces rebuilt and replaced, which is expensive by Vietnamese standards, but in the states might cost anywhere from 10-20 times that amount.

South of Tuy Hoa I really noticed the scenery change…the waters became bluer and the greenery more lush. The coastal roads in this central part of the country were some of my favorites, and they completely took my mind off of the thought of selling my bike anytime soon.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
The Hon Gom Peninsula, Vietnam’s farthest east point. This was the first beautiful beach I saw in Asia that was completely untouched by tourism – not a single resort, bungalow, or beach bar. Just miles and miles of rolling white sand dunes and calm aqua blue waters.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

G0085367 3

I spent the following night at a hostel in Nha Trang, an extremely underwhelming city that’s overcrowded with Russian tourists. But at this point my mind was on Saigon – it was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I’d been driving throughout the country for some 25 days now, but I still found myself anxious to navigate the city’s infamous traffic jams.

After a night in Phan Thiet, halfway between Nha Trang and Saigon, I set off for my destination. With 100 km left, it started raining heavily. I took a break under a gas station’s overhanging roof and waited for the weather to clear, which it didn’t. So here I am, already slightly nervous about facing the heaviest traffic yet in Saigon, and it’s relentlessly dumping rain. Semi trucks and busses scream past, everything I’m wearing is soaking wet, and it’s starting to get dark. Welcome to Saigon! The traffic turned out to be a piece of cake though, not much tougher than Hanoi’s in my opinion. The swarms of motorbikes during rush hour were like I had never seen, it was awesome. It might be chaotic, but the Viets have found a way to make it work well. Streetlights and roadsigns are merely suggestions, and the only rule of the road is that you usually yield to any vehicle larger than yours.

Untitled

Saigon didn’t interest me much. I’d already relished in Hanoi and fallen in love with what it had to offer, and to me Saigon just didn’t have much appeal for a big city. Sometimes in Vietnam there’s this underlying feeling that you’re being hustled anytime there’s money involved, and in Saigon it seemed a bit more blatant to me. That’s not to say that the city isn’t home to some great people though. Friendly university students are everywhere, wanting to take you out for a bite to eat or for a tour of the city to practice their English. Elderly groups practicing Tai Chi and aerobics in the central park crack a friendly smile as you pass by. And some of the food vendors seem to light up out of happiness when you return to their stall. Although I’d heard from others that the Vietnamese people were rude and cold, I found them to be really lovely. They were without a doubt more abrasive than the Thai and Lao people I’d met, but they were every bit as curious and eager to make a foreigner friend as anyone else I’d encountered on my travels.

Untitled

Untitled

I spent my time in Saigon the same way I did in Hanoi…walking around, people watching, and eating through the city’s cheap and delicious offerings.

Untitled
Savory roadside pancakes

Untitled

Untitled
The legendary heo quay

Untitled
Bún thịt nướng is a winner. It’s similar to Bún chả Hanoi, but without the soup broth to go along with it.

Untitled
The friendliest family served up bún thịt nướng here in the morning at the Thai binh market. I made it a daily stop while in Saigon.

Untitled

I’d had enough of Saigon after 4 nights there. I’d made some necessary repairs on my bike, and decided to keep it and try and sell it in Cambodia. I left the city heading southwest, towards the Mekong Delta with Ha Tien as my destination. The Mekong Delta was gorgeous, it’s where the Mekong River splits into a ton of little legs that empty out at the ocean. I eventually reached Ha Tien for my last night in Vietnam. I look back and wonder how different my experience might have been if I’d decided to travel the country without my bike, and to tell you the truth now I really can’t imagine doing it any other way.

TLDR