A stopover in Bangkok with two of our favorite people

DSC04167Gabe and Becca began their two-month globe-trot right as we were wrapping up, so we had the pleasure of spending a few days with them in Bangkok. If I could leave you with just one image that truly captures the essence of Gabe and Becca, it would be this one:

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I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I had to. How adorable are the matching pamphlets sticking out of their tooshies? Jill and I were just so jealous that they were starting their epic trip right as we were ending ours.

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#sweatstains. It was about 100 degrees that day.

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So we toured the Grand Palace with our two long lost friends, got group foot massages (twice), enjoyed some good food, and had a few drinks.

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Coconut sisters

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Hello, $10 foot massages!

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On our first day, the girls went back to nap, so Gabe and I wandered off down a series of random side streets until we were among 100% locals. We found this big gregarious dude cooking street food and decided to try it out — amazing salad!

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Big gregarious dude

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Amazing salad

A few beers later, and things got interesting. One thing led to another and before we knew it, we were having a pushup contest on the dude’s floor. Here are Gabe’s sub-par pushups (ok, they’re not bad form actually):

But he was still 20 pushups shy: Tramiel 26, Saper 46. The sweet smell of victory.

All in all, a great yet brief few days with two of our favorite people in the world. We wished them well on their journey, and we were off to Australia to wrap up ours.

Chilling in Luang Prabang, Laos

From Cambodia we set sail (figuratively) to Luang Prabang, Laos for some utter relaxation in one of the most quaint and serene places we visited.

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Sunset view from Mount Phusi, right on the edge of town.

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Someone feed that boy a bagel.

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Nestled in between the Mekong and Nam Kam rivers, Luang Prabang is a small French-influenced Buddhist monastery town. The Laotian government has somehow managed to keep it incredibly well preserved and true to form — while plenty touristy, you don’t feel it. A very hard balance to strike that they have done masterfully.

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We found Biggie.

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The rivers are lined with amazing villas, restaurants, local woodwork stores, silk shops and cafes.

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Three Nagas restaurant. Thanks for the rec mom :)

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Jill hammered. Wait, my mistake — dead sober.

We stayed in two awesome cottages (both under $40 a night), with free bike rentals.  It’s the perfect town to aimlessly pedal around.  Stop in a cafe, read for hours uninterrupted at the AWESOME riverside bar called Utopia,  take a river cruise up the Mekong, and enjoy a spectacular 360-degree sunset view over the town and rivers atop Mount Phusi. You can also ride elephants, which we opted out of — free the beasts!

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Greatest bar of all time: Utopia

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Jill’s reading the same book as her teenage friend next to her: “Game of Thrones, Book 1.”

A very cool experience that is quintessential Luang Prabang, is the giving of the alms in the mornings. You get up at dawn and watch the monks walk up and down the streets collecting their food for the day from locals (primarily). It is getting quite touristy with a lot of folks snapping pics (us included), but still a serene way to start the morning.

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We also ran into Jill’s friend Sarah from Piedmont, which was good fun. She has been a Backroads bike trip leader the past few years, and was there with a few of her other guide friends. So we enjoyed some delicious Laotian street food together.

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We had been told by a number of a friends and family that Luang Prabang had been a favorite destination in Southeast Asia. It did not disappoint.

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Okay, confession. We are back in the USA and not in Cambodia as this blog post might make you think, but we are going to do a few more posts from home to make sure JDAdventure is complete. We had a no-blogging-on-our-Australia-honeymoon rule, then we flew home and moved back into our apartment, went back to work – and anyways, here we are talking about a trip to Angkor Wat that seems like it happened in another lifetime. Oh well!

Anyways, back to Asia!

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When we were planning our trip everyone told us we absolutely had to see Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. ‘Can’t miss it, incredible, 8 days was not enough…’ was all we heard. So we went!

And then it was a little disappointing. Sometimes in blog-land everything seems so perfect and happy, so I’m here to burst your bubble.

You do not absolutely have to see Angkor Wat. There cannot possibly be a place that 100% of travelers love, and in this case, I was definitely part of the minority that was not feeling the Angkor Wat love.

Dan and I both realized that after eight days in Burma with the out-of-this-world temple-viewing in Bagan, we didn’t really have ‘fresh eyes’ (as another traveler put it) to take it all in. We were a bit tired and templed-out.

Case in point, I took a little nap while Dan climbed some steep temple stairs.

Yes, I did fall asleep on those rocks.

Yes, I did fall asleep on those rocks.

We also arrived in Siem Reap on the heels of a very remote and un-touristy trip to Burma. Now with over two million tourists a year (up from about 600,000 in 2006), Angkor Wat felt like Disney World. There were huge tour buses in traffic jams and a bajillion people everywhere, not to mentioned the Dairy Queen in the Siem Reap airport.

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Peeps. Be. Everywhere.

The upside is that we really realized how unique our Burma experience was. Burma was totally off the beaten path, and we felt lucky to have been there before it potentially becomes another…Angkor Wat.

Okay, enough on the negativity. After dealing with the tourism culture shock we had a really nice 1.5 days in Siem Reap.

And even though Angkor Wat can feel crowded, there were moments when we were totally alone.

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The temples are incredible.

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And go on for miles.

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Admittedly, we also did not prepare quite as well as we could have for this trip. This comes with traveling for three months. Between Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, and emails to friends, Dan researched Burma like a crazy man. Then we just showed up in Angkor Wat, ready for a break from planning. Not the best idea since Angkor Wat is a place that requires some research to make it worthwhile. I would highly recommend finding an excellent guide. We skipped the guide and just had a driver from our hotel take us around. He immediately proceeded to lock his keys in the car outside of the first temple. Oops! So not only were we melting in the heat waiting for an extra set of keys, but we didn’t have a great guide to give meaning to the places we saw. Lesson learned for next time.

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Thanks for reading our first back-in-the-USA blog post. It’s fun to relive the trip again and a million times easier to blog from a laptop than a tablet. I only wish it was warm enough in San Francisco to break out those hot pink elephant pants! Until next time…

Inle Lake

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Our trek led us into one of the hundreds of finger-like canals that feed into Inle Lake.  It is a stunningly beautiful place, with homes on stilts over farmland that somehow grows right into the lake. The lake is fairly large at 44 square miles but the average depth is only five feet.

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We saw men up to their chests in water tending to the crops. Women were rowing long sleek canoes filled with vegetables. Inle Lake is known for the “leg rowers,” where men hold a single paddle with one leg, standing on the other leg at the back of the boat, gyrating their body rhythmically to row. It keeps their hands free for fishing and farm work.

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While there were certainly some tourists around, Burma kept its “untouristy” streak going strong at Inle Lake. It is serene, unique and still feels relatively untouched.

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We stayed at the Golden Island Cottages 2 which was fantastic. It was our “splurge” in Burma at $80 a night. It is centrally located on the lake and all the rooms are private cottages on stilts over the water, with open lake views on one side and the bordering hills on the other. An amazing place to stay.

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Unfortunately… Inle Lake was the only place I got sick during our three months on the road (I think my large intestine was trying to eat my small intestine but only for 24 hours). Nonetheless, the place was still unquestionably a highlight of the trip.

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Trek to Inle Lake

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After temple touring in Bagan we headed to Kalaw, a small mountain town in Central Myanmar, to start our three-day trek to Inle Lake. This trek is a must-do for backpacker travelers in Myanmar, and since we had transformed into super tough and rugged backpackers over the past two months (see “modified backpacking” in Chile, 16 porters on Kili, and a very tearful summit) we signed up right away.

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Dan had organized our trek with a local guide, Toe Toe, months ahead of time — her company was recommended in Lonely Planet and she had rave reviews on Trip Advisor, so we were excited that she had two spots on a trek that worked with our itinerary.

As planned, we showed up at Toe Toe’s Kalaw office the day before our trek, but the door was padlocked shut with a sign that said “Closed — come back at 12 or 4:30.” Not a good sign.

We were so devoted to the elusive Toe Toe that we waited in front of the office at noon and again at 4:30 PM, hoping this 5-star trip advisor guide had not forgotten about us.

She had. Or, as we later learned, Toe Toe’s trips leave when six trekkers show up ready to go, email ‘confirmation’ or not. Welcome to Burma!

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As it approached 6 PM we realized we needed a Plan B. Our hotel recommended Sam’s Trekking, which was also Lonely Planet approved, so we walked over to Sam’s office hoping we could sign up for a last minute trek.

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We were in luck! Sam has 22 guides and fit us in on a trip leaving the next morning. Each trekking group can have up to six trekkers, so we joined up with a group of four awesome travelers from Ireland, Estonia, and Germany.

The total cost of our trip for three days/two nights, plus all food and lodging included, plus a guide and dedicated cook – was a whopping $40 per person. Welcome to Burma!

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The trek turned out to be our favorite Burmese experience. We hiked through remote villages and beautiful countryside. Our chef (below in the hat) made amazing traditional Burmese meals — the best food we ate in Asia, all cooked over a tiny little fire.

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The first night we slept in a family’s home, on the floor with mats and blankets. No toilets, no running water — just a bucket for washing located next to the buffalo trail (see me below).

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The second night we slept in a similar setting, at a small one-room house that Sam’s trekking company rents out along the route.

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Our 22-year-old guide Chau Xu (“Cho Sue”) was awesome, and insisted on holding every baby we passed along the way.

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Our trekking family — Yasmin and Paul from Ireland, Kristiina from Estonia, and Alex from Germany — was the best. The long, hot hiking days passed by quickly as we all shared travel stories. And as always our list of must-see destinations grew by the minute.

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By the end of the three day adventure we were completely exhausted — intense heat, blisters (I missed my Kili boots!), dust and more dust. We all had a newfound appreciation for showers and beds and agreed however primitive our next guesthouse was, we’d be grateful!

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We finished the trek at the base of the mountains, on a small river leading into Inle Lake. After lunch and fresh coconuts we took a little boat down one of the hundreds of canals leading us into Inle Lake, passing floating gardens and villages along the way.

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In the end, we were thankful that our plans had fallen apart and Toe Toe had stood us up. Our new guide and group could not have been better. Another travel fiasco turned blessing in disguise…and now, onto Inle Lake!

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Bagan’s 4,000 temples

From Yangon we went to Bagan for some premium temple viewing.

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Beginning in the 11th century and spanning the next 2,500 years, over 10,000 total temples were built, of which over 2,200 still remain. It is truly a sight to behold. There are dozens of temples that could each be a major destination in a more developed tourist market.

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Bagan is quite flat so renting bikes — at fifty cents an hour or $3 a day — is the way to go. We biked all over the three main corners of the city and stopped at a number of temples that caught our eye, leaving our bikes unlocked outside for an hour or two (along with our shoes), no problem. It’s an extremely trusting culture.

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One of our favorite restaurants from the entire two months so far was a vegetarian Indian joint in Bagan’s Old City, called “Be Kind to Animals the Moon”…which was also the coolest name of any restaurant we’d been to.

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We took a sunset boat ride one evening and then climbed the steps of the famous sunset-viewing temple, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, where you can see hundreds of temples dotting the horizon in all directions. That hour alone was worth the trip to Bagan.

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A great few days in what we’re sure will soon become a tourist Mecca for temple viewing.

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Yangon, Burma

We flew from Kilimanjaro to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where we had a hellish five-hour layover before a hellish redeye to Bangkok. After a brief 36 hours in Bangkok to get our visas for Burma/Myanmar, we headed to Yangon, which was Burma’s capital city until 2006.

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Burma is at an interesting inflection point in its history. Even after a week in this country, we still have no clue what it’s really called. And apparently neither does our President.

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The historically oppressive government has been liberalizing, and after being shunned by the West for decades, it is finally opening up to tourists. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit this country of 50m people. They just got their first ATM in November, they don’t take credit cards yet and you have to exchange crisp US $100 bills. The people are enjoying their first sips of Coca Cola in 60 years. Tourism is on the rise but is still under-penetrated, which we really grew to appreciate on this trip. You can walk around Yangon (4.5m people) for half an hour without seeing another tourist. And Lonely Planet considers it the safest city in Southeast Asia.

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Yangon is typically just a stopover city en route to Burma’s more spectacular sites such as Bagan, Inle Lake and [from what we hear] Ngapali Beach. Prices are still insanely low in the city — take a cab anywhere for $2, or have a great meal for not much more. Foreign investment has started to pour in, so you’ll see old decrepit buildings alongside brand new apartment complexes.

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Yangon’s biggest attraction is the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, a sprawling hilltop Buddhist temple that is best experienced at sunset to see the dome caps glow in the orange light.

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So we exchanged a few hundred bucks for about $10 billion Burmese Kyat (see below for our Scarface-sized mountain of Burmese cashola) and were on our way.

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