Author Archives: Jill

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…

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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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Kilimanjaro: Days 4-5

(By Jill)

Kili Day 4: Tipping Point, Baby!

We officially made it to the second half of our journey — woohoo! Day four started with a super steep ascent up a rocky trail, aptly called ‘breakfast wall’ as the climb begins right after breakfast.

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Like most of Kili thus far, as you looked up from the bottom of the breakfast wall the ascent looked impossible, but we went ‘pole pole’ and made it the top just fine. After 4.5 hours of ups and downs, we arrived at Karanga camp. For climbers on the 6-day Machama route, Karanga camp is just a lunch stop before the summit base camp. We were very relieved to be on a 7-day trip, and have extra time to rest. Since we only had a half day of hiking, we snoozed in the afternoon and tried our best to quell the nervous anticipation for day five — summit day.

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Kili Day 5: It’s Summit Time

On day five we slept in until 7am and woke up to a very frosty Karanga camp. Morning stomach problems had become the norm for us, but our guides continuously assured us this was very normal. Our amazing chef, Frances Catunzi (or “CatunziCatunziCatunzi” as everyone called him, pictured in the blue jacket and red pants) was great about making us lots of easy-on-the-stomach foods — toast, wheat flour pancakes, porridge, and fresh ginger tea.

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The pre-summit hike was easy and only about three hours long. At our last water break we chatted with the first Americans we had met on the trail — a father/son duo from Indiana. They happened to have a sister/aunt who lives in…Piedmont! They were devoted Letterman birdcall watchers and love the Piedmont Post. Amazing small world.

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After one last climb we reached our campsite, Barafu Camp, which is literally above the clouds at about 16,000 feet. We ate a quick lunch and took a long nap, knowing our pre-summit sleep would be brief at best. After an early 5:30pm dinner, we crawled into our tent for a few hours of rest before our 11pm wake-up call.

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At this point, we were so ready for the summit. Earlier in the day, we were laughing and talking about how the most difficult part of the climb is not the terrain or the cold or the strains on our bodies…but the anticipation! We have been anticipating the summit nonstop for days. Our guides have wisely warned us not to think about it, but they clearly don’t understand how neurotic we are. And not only are we expert worriers, but the distractions we rely on at home are non-existent on the mountain. Once we finish hiking, we can read, talk, or sleep in the tent. We are basically cavemen. There’s no internet to scan, text messages to read, Scandal episodes to watch, or emergency therapy sessions to schedule. Every day it’s just us and the impending summit.

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So here we go….wish us luck!

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Kilimanjaro: Days 1-3

(By Jill)

Kili Day 1: ‘Pole pole’

Nothing on this trip has been more daunting than the expectation of our 7-day Kili trek, so we were eager to finally start climbing. We arrived at the Machame gate to find lots of tourists, a few monkeys, and tons and tons of porters. For our two-person climb we had a crew of 16 porters, one guide, and one assistant guide. Yep, there were 18 people ready to help us summit. Unbelievable, and extremely humbling.

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Our guides, Ayumwi (clocking in at age 66 but looking 20 years younger) and John (or ‘Kaka John’ for brother John) were awesome from the minute we met them. We couldn’t have been happier to be paired with such great Kili guides.

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Everywhere on the trail (and enscripted at the trailhead) you hear one phrase repeated over and over again: ‘pole, pole,’ – or ‘slowly, slowly.’ All day long it’s ‘pole, pole.’ Ayumwi and John did a great job of setting a slow and steady pace, which is the best way for to acclimatize and maintain energy during the ascent.

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We saw other groups power past us, sweating, huffing, and puffing — and in the end we made it to the campsite before them. Slow and steady wins the race on Kili.

After about six hours on the trail, we made it to our first campsite, Machame camp. We were greeted with bowls of ‘hot water for washing’ then popcorn and hot tea. We had our first mountain dinner by candlelight/headlamp and were cozy in our tents by 8pm. Life on the mountain suits us!

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Kili Day 2

Today felt like our first ‘real’ day on the mountain. We were up at 6:30am for vital signs, then coffee and tea in our tent. We took turns drinking tea and sprinting to the bathroom (or ATM machine, as our porters call it…and yes, they carried a bathroom up the mountain for us) as our stomachs were still adjusting to Africa.

Breakfast was a fruit platter with fresh bananas, mango, papaya, avocado, plus hot porridge, eggs, bacon, and toast. The SENE team carries a new supply of fresh food up the mountain every three days. Amazing.

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The day two hike was short but very steep, as we ascended to 13,000 feet in about five hours. Even with the steep trail we felt fine, though Dan was a little dizzy near the end. We later heard stories of major altitude sickness on day two, so thank goodness for Diamox.

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The scenery was beautiful – lush and green with fog rolling in and covering us instantly. We had very little rain which made the steep, rocky terrain much easier to manage.

By 1pm we arrived at Shira camp, changed into long underwear (once you stop moving, it’s very cold!) and had a hot lunch. Then we snoozed and read in the tent until dinner. It’s pitch black by about 6:30pm and the whole camp is silent by 8pm. We read, wrote in the journal, and mentally prepared ourselves for day three — a long one all the way up to 16,000 feet!

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Kili Day 3: Climb High, Sleep Low

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On day three we conquered a 4.5 hour ascent to Lava Tower at 16,000 feet. The top of Lava Tower was desolate and freezing. Some (crazy) people camp there, but we just stopped for a quick (and snowy) lunch to let our bodies acclimate to the elevation, then descended to 13,000 feet to recover and sleep. Climb high, sleep low — as long as we didn’t have to stay at Lava Tower, we were happy!

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After lunch we made our way down to Baranco hut and had our first rainy hike. Gabe and Becca – we have NO idea how you did this during a monsoon!

We were tired from our longest day of hiking and in bed by 7:30pm — a new JDadventure record 🙂

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Kilimanjaro: T minus 2

On February 4th we made our way from gorilla territory in Rwanda to Kili territory in Tanzania. We landed in the not-so-large Kilimanjaro airport and strategically sprinted ahead of our fellow Rwanda Air passengers to be the first through Customs. We were first off the plane, first to fill out our immigration forms, then first in line for passport control. The Immigration Officer kindly pointed us to the visa counter since all foreigners need to purchase a $100 visa in order to enter Tanzania. No problem!

Except one: we had exactly $7 in cash, they didn’t take credit cards, and the only ATM in the airport was located outside Customs and was out service.

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I can see my dad, who always reminds me to travel with cash, cringing as he reads this. We were in a major pickle. All the other passengers were halfway up Kilimanjaro and we were stuck in Customs.

Fortunately, Dan was able to reach Simon, who runs SENE (the company we climbed with — more to come on Simon and SENE). Simon told us to sit tight for an hour while he delivered $200 in cash to our driver, Joseph. Joseph was then able to get the money through Customs — actually, the police officers just let him walk right in and hand it to us. Pentagon-esque security.

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So two hours after playing gin alone in the deserted Customs area, we made it out of limbo and into Tanzania. A huge thank you to Joseph and Simon for their successful rescue mission.

Joseph drove us from the airport into Moshi town, a suburb in the foothills of Kilimanjaro where we got our first view of the mountain along the way. It was so intimidating to see the giant, snow-capped peak in the distance — I’ll admit I started to have some minor second thoughts about our trek! Maybe gorilla tracking and table mountain day hikes were more my pace? Whose idea was this anyway?? (mine!)

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Goodnight, Kili – we will see you in two days…

Hello from Bangkok!

We just arrived in Bangkok after a long haul from Kilimanjaro via Ethiopia. If you can avoid flying Ethiopia Air, probably a good idea, but we survived a crazy packed redeye from Addis Ababa and are happy to begin our Asia adventure.

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Lunch in Bangkok, mmmmm

We had zero wireless internet in Tanzania, so we are way behind on the posts, and will be catching up as much as we can before we head to Burma. Stay tuned for gorillas, Kilimanjaro, safari, and more….

Cape Town Friends

We were lucky to spend two evenings with friends in Cape Town.

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My grandmother connected us with her childhood best friend’s son, Tim, and his wife Sherry. Sherry is from South Africa and Tim is the director of Stanford’s exchange student program in Cape Town. The program focuses on service learning, and students pair up with NGOs in the townships for a quarter. What an amazing opportunity for college students!

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Newlamds hotel - not exactly the backpack hostel (or beckpeck, as everyone in ZA calls it)

Sadly Tim came down with the flu the night we were supposed to meet, but Dan and I enjoyed a lovely wine tasting and dinner with Sherry at the beautiful Vineyards hotel in Newlands. It was great to see a picturesque neighborhood outside of the city proper. Sherry knows everything about Cape Town and we loved her local perspective.

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On our last night in Cape Town we met up with one of my Emory friends, Jess, and her boyfriend, Ganesh. They are spending two months in the city as part of their MBA program. We were super envious of their extended stay in our (new) favorite city, not to mention the 20-day ‘over-land’ tour they had just done through Zambia, Namibia, and more. Lucky ducks!

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We had dinner at Mama Africa, known for the extensive game menu and amazing live African music. It was a great dinner but also SAD as this was the last night in Cape Town for me and Dan, and we felt nowhere near ready to leave.

And I will admit this here because it is extremely rare that I’m wrong (and Dan deserves FULL credit) – but it has to be known – when we planned this trip I was completely uninterested in going to Cape Town.

It was a stop-over to appease my husband.

Had  I been living under a rock? Yes. All I know is that when I brought up Cape Town, people would say, ‘it’s a great city – much like San Francisco!’ I envisioned a foggy, coastal SF-esque city surrounded by Napa-like vineyards. Why go there for vacation when I am there everyday?

Cape Town was also totally off my radar – it’s a loong 24 hours of travel time from CA so I didn’t know anyone who had been there, except for two high school friends who had studied abroad there, but that was eight years ago, when I was South-America-obsessed!

I was ignorant, out-of-the-loop, crazy…thank goodness my travel companion didn’t let me get to him.

Dan – you nailed this one and, yes, now I trust you to pick (some) of our travel destinations. And I’m ready to go back to Cape Town since we left one major excursion off our list….

shark diving here we come!!!