A Merry Christmas in Micronesia

The moment I saw a photo taken from Palau, I knew we had to go. The diving destination quickly skipped to the top of my travel bucket list and just seven months after seeing that first photo, we were in Palau. Coming from Japan, we had a four hour layover in Guam where we made the most of our time by hitting the beach. This was a sharp, but very welcome change from the snowy weather we had in Japan. guamThe main reason to visit Palau is the world-class scuba diving. We purchased a week-long dive package with Sam’s Tours in Palau that included all transportation, hotels and dives so everything was already taken care of when we arrived (highly recommend!). We were picked up from the tiny airport in Palau, taken to our hotel and the next morning checked into the dive shop that would become our home for the next week. Our routine over the course of the week was as follows. 1. Arrive at the dive shop and get our gear ready for the day.IMG_3924 (1280x960)2. Take an hour long boat ride to the outer reef for a morning dive. Palau is comprised of roughly 250 islands, 200 of which are uninhabited. The daily boat rides were actually a huge perk, almost like a free scenic boat tour every day. Look at all the different colors of the water!IMG_3654 (1280x960)IMG_3663 (1280x960)IMG_3665 (1280x960)IMG_3675 (1280x960)IMG_3730 (1280x960)IMG_3738 (1280x960)IMG_4127 (1280x960)3. Get back on the dive boat and head to a secluded beach to eat lunch. IMG_3689 (1280x960)IMG_3690 (1280x960)IMG_3692 (1280x960)IMG_3694 (1280x960) One of the days we stopped at the beach below where they filmed “Survivor Palau” back in 2005.IMG_3747 (1280x960)IMG_3782 (1280x960)IMG_3772 (1280x960)IMG_3793 (1280x960)IMG_3810 (1280x960)IMG_3818 (1280x960)IMG_3789 (1280x960)4. Take the boat to the next dive site(s) for one or two more dives.IMG_3932 (1280x960)5. Head back to the dive shop for happy hour and catch the sunset.IMG_3917 (1280x960)IMG_3916 (1280x960)IMG_4103 (1280x960)6. Eat dinner and pass out. I don’t think we ever made it past 10pm! We were lucky enough to have a great group of people on our dive boat and made some awesome friends from Germany.  IMG_4115 (1280x960)One of which, Markus, is a dive master and owns one of the nicest underwater cameras we’ve ever seen. Thanks to him, he’s let us use some photos he took during our trip. If you are ever in Austria, check out Bukannon Divers!bukannon3 (960x540)bukannon2 (960x639)bukannon7 (960x640)palauThe diving in Palau is incredible. Not only is the underwater life amazing, there is so much diversity. Within our 12 dives, we dove in channels, drop-offs, caves, holes, shipwrecks, etc. You name it, Palau has it all!IMG_3888 (1280x960)bukannon1 (960x639)bukannon5 (640x960)bukannon6 (960x640)Aside from the diving, one of the highlights of Palau was or snorkel trip to Jellyfish Lake. There is a lake on Eil Malk island where an estimated five million golden jellyfish migrate from one side of the lake to the other following the sun. The jellyfish don’t sting, in fact, they are super soft and squishy, which is a good thing because they are everywhere!  They were so delicate that if you swam too quickly, your fins could easily rip one to shreds. We jumped into the lake and started to head to where they were most concentrated. As we swam, we slowly became increasingly surrounded by hundreds and then thousands of them.IMG_3956 (1280x960)IMG_3974 (1280x960)IMG_3981 (1280x960)IMG_3983 (1280x960)IMG_4002 (1280x960)IMG_3998 (1280x960)We took a ton of photos at Jellyfish Lake…IMG_3992 (1280x960)IMG_3994 (1280x960)IMG_3968 (1280x960)IMG_3975 (1280x960)IMG_3960 (1280x960)IMG_4006 (1280x960)IMG_4018 (960x1280)
We took a video diving down through the masses of jellyfish. This gives a little perspective into how many there were and how dense the population was in certain spots of the lake.  

The day before our flight back to the States, we went on an all-day kayak trip to get up close and personal to the Rock Islands, a dense cluster of limestone islands which is part of Palau. We kayaked in lagoons and caves and went snorkeling and cliff jumping all day. Not a bad way to spend our last day!

IMG_4210 (1280x960)IMG_4197 (1280x960)

We were picked up by our airport transfer for our long trip back to the States. From Palau we flew to the small island of Yap, then to Guam and Honolulu before eventually making it back to San Francisco 25 hours later. I would have flown another 25 hours if we had to; Palau is totally worth the trip! While we missed seeing all of our family and friends over the holidays, it was truly an incredible birthday and Christmas vacation.IMG_3928 (1280x960)
Here’s to hoping 2015 brings as many amazing memories and getaways as this year did!bukannon8 (534x534)

Advertisements

Picture Perfect Palawan

After a turbulent flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, we made our way from the airport to the bus terminal where we boarded a bus to El Nido. What was supposed to be a six hour journey took seven and a half hours so it was getting dark by the time we reached El Nido. We settled into some cheap digs outside of town and moved to an ocean front guesthouse on the main beach the next morning.IMG_3137 (1024x768)El Nido is on the northern tip of the island of Palawan and is known for its beautiful karst limestone scenery. The views are great but the main beach is full of boats and isn’t the greatest for swimming. We had previously talked to other travelers who recommended nearby Las Cabanas Beach so we hired a tricycle to take us there for the day. The beach was stunning with only a handful of other people around.IMG_2837 (1024x768) IMG_2845 (1024x768) IMG_2868 (1024x768) IMG_2855 (1024x768) IMG_2899 (1024x768)That evening, we ran into a Polish couple we met diving on Apo Island. They were with a group of people organizing a boat for an island hopping trip the next day so we decided to join them. The boat stopped at five different islands and our first stop was more than an hour away giving us time to snap some photos of the gorgeous scenery along the way.IMG_3000 (1024x768) IMG_2938 (1024x768) IMG_2941 (1024x768)Each of the five islands offered something a little different but almost all of the islands offered decent snorkeling.IMG_2948 (1024x768) IMG_2952 (1024x768) IMG_2961 (1024x768)One island was called Secret Beach because you had to swim through a small opening in the rocks. We stopped at another island for lunch which had a scenic lookout to view the surrounding area.IMG_2998 (1024x768) IMG_2996 (1024x768) IMG_3013 (1024x768)Hidden Beach was completely camouflaged by its surrounding rock formations and we got caught in a pretty good thunderstorm which added to the adventure. Luckily it was short lived so it wasn’t long until we were back in business visiting Helicopter Island, named for its shape, for some more swimming and snorkeling.IMG_3047 (1024x768) IMG_3053 (1024x768)The island hopping tour was nearly eight hours and quite exhausting so we decided to go back to Las Cabanas Beach the next day. It was even prettier the second time around.IMG_3126 (1024x768) IMG_3131 (1024x768) IMG_3092 (1024x768) IMG_3088 (1024x768)By our fifth day in El Nido, it was time to move on. Turns out the Polish couple, Patricia and Robert, were headed the same way so we negotiated four tickets on one of the daily ferries from El Nido to Coron. We were dreading the seven hour ride in such a small boat but it turned out to be pretty relaxing and incredibly scenic as we passed island after island and beach after beach. I think the boat ride really put into perspective just how many islands comprise the Philippines and most of them are untouched and uninhabited.IMG_3153 (1024x768) IMG_3141 (1024x768) IMG_3145 (1024x768) IMG_3147 (1024x768)It was early evening when we finally arrived in Coron. We found a pretty sweet guesthouse and then went to work talking to the numerous dive shops in town. We signed up for two dives for the next day and then found a local restaurant for dinner where Chris feasted on a plate of sizzling ‘sisig’ or pig face. It’s a bit fatty but pretty tasty!IMG_3489 (1024x768)Coron is known as the “Shipwreck Capital of the Philippines” because of its vicinity to about a dozen sunken Japanese war ships from WWII. Our dive boat took us about an hour offshore for two different wrecks. Olympia Maru and East Tangat were both Japanese auxiliary cargo ships sunk by U.S. air raids on September 24, 1944. Olympia Maru (our favorite of the two dives) sits 80 feet below the surface of the ocean while East Tangat rests at 60 feet below the surface. Between the two dives, we were able to swim through a propeller room, boiler room, kitchen and several cargo holds (one of which held stockpiles of explosives). The visibility was pretty bad ,which is normal for the area, but it just added to the spookiness of the experience.  It was surreal seeing evidence of former life on the sunken ships…valves and ladders were overgrown with  coral and reef life…definitely an awesome experience!IMG_3154 (1024x768)Between our two dives, we ate lunch and our dive leader showed us the local dive equipment. The handmade goggles were carved out of fish bone and held together by fishing line while one fin was made of fiberglass and the other from old wood scraps. The goggles must have been a custom fit because they immediately filled with water when Chris swam with them. Although they were pretty heavy, the fins worked surprisingly well!IMG_3162 (1024x768) IMG_3166 (1024x768) IMG_3167 (1024x768)After dinner that evening, we walked around the public food market where we bought Chris a balut. Often ranked among the top “nastiest foods in the world to eat,” balut is a developing duck embryo. Filipino locals boil the egg and serve it to you in its shell. When we opened it up, I could barely look at it. Chris dug in and said the first bite tasted like a normal egg but that it had a bit of “structure” to it. The other bites weren’t as bad as the first, which we think included the head of the unborn baby duck.DSC02359 (1024x681) DSC02361 (1024x681) DSC02364 (1024x681)The next morning, we went on a chaotic island hopping trip that was jam packed with people and planned stops. Our first stop was to a reef for some snorkeling…we weren’t expecting to see much but was pleasantly surprised to spot a few new things and even a spotted eel.IMG_3203 (1024x768)Our next two stops were to lakes set within the limestone formations. Both lakes were incredibly clean with good visibility and underwater rock outcroppings. The remaining stops included another reef, a secluded beach and a shipwreck. We spent nearly the entire day in the water and were thoroughly exhausted from the day’s activities.IMG_3250 (1024x768) IMG_3264 (1024x768) IMG_3266 (1024x768)While we were enjoying one of Coron’s many amazing sunsets with a few people from our snorkel tour, we ran into an American girl, Kim, from our dive trip in Apo Island. That evening, our group of seven (two other Americans, the Polish couple, and a Spaniard) made arrangements to hire a private boat to take us to some farther islands the next day.????????We met the next morning at the public market and split up to buy provisions for the day. Chris and I were on fish detail and bought nearly nine pounds of fresh fish – a four pound parrotfish and two tunas.  The others came back with fruit, vegetables, rice, beer, ice and charcoal. We loaded the boat and headed off to Malcapuya Island, our first stop for the day about 90 minutes away.IMG_3359 (1024x768)About half way there, we came across a large fishing boat pulling in their tuna net. A huge pod of dolphins was swarming the boat so we asked the captain to stop, grabbed our snorkels and jumped in the water. They were everywhere….swimming around us and jumping out of the water like crazy. The whole experience was awesome and totally unplanned.IMG_3369 (1024x768) IMG_3372 (1024x768)Malcapuya Island is known for its white sandy beaches and it did not disappoint. The white sand against the turquoise water was gorgeous…one of the most picturesque beaches we’ve seen. IMG_3441 (1024x768) IMG_3377 (1024x768) IMG_3455 (1024x768) IMG_3457 (1024x768)And what are the chances that a boat would be sitting on the sand that says “Chris 2013 Malcapuya” on it?!IMG_3436 (1024x768)The island is also known for its giant clams  located a couple hundred meters offshore. We swam for what seemed like forever until we reached them and they were huge!IMG_3385 (1024x768) IMG_3398 (1024x768)While we were swimming and snorkeling, the boat crew was busy preparing and cooking all of the food we had purchased. We climbed back onboard for fresh fish and ice cold beers and made our way to the next stop, Bulog Island.IMG_3447 (1024x768) IMG_3448 (1024x768)The beach wasn’t as nice as Malcapuya but the snorkeling was really good. There weren’t giant clams but there were thousands of smaller clams embedded all over the coral. IMG_3412 (1024x768)I’ve never seen so many clams. It looked as though the rocks had lips and some clams were so incredibly vibrant and colorful.IMG_3471 (1024x768) IMG_3478 (1024x768)The private boat turned out to be cheaper than if we had gone on an island hopping tour and we had more flexibility, could choose our own itinerary, had lunch cooked for us and had cold beer at our disposal! Such an amazing day spent with a great group of people.IMG_3487 (1024x768)We had one more day in Coron and given where we were, I decided to sign up for two more wreck dives. Unfortunately, on our first pair of wreck dives Chris tried to equalize his ears a little too hard on our descent and busted a capillary which caused him to spit up some blood for the next few days. To be on the safe side and not to risk anything, he stayed home while I went diving with Kim from Oregon. I hate to say it, but these dives were by far the best dives I’ve ever done and don’t even compare to the wrecks we saw a few days before. These ships were a lot deeper (115 feet) and were a lot larger. You could easily get lost swimming around the bowels of the ship. One of the ships, Akitsushima, is the only warship in the area and you could still see its artillery and explosives. The other ship, Kogyo Maru, had a bulldozer, cement mixer, bombs and huge boiler rooms. Both were absolutely incredible but I was bummed I couldn’t share the experience with Chris. He would have loved it.

That night, Kim, Chris and I went out for dinner and drinks with a few Germans from our dive boat. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a karaoke bar. Karaoke is a favorite Filipino pastime. They love it so much, you can easily find a place at 10AM to go karaoke. We (and by “we” I mean Chris and Kim) sang well into the night…a great way to end our time in Coron!

The next morning we boarded an all-day ferry to take us to Puerto Princesa. We arrived late at night and headed straight to our hotel to crash. Our hotel was located right next to a brand new mall so after three amazing weeks in the Philippines, we spent our last day shopping, eating and preparing for our last and final country…such a bittersweet feeling.

The Philippines is the last country that Chris and I will travel alone because my mom and brother Dave are meeting us in Korea for the final leg of our trip! We’re so excited to see them and to explore the country and culture of my homeland!????????

Philippines: Island Hopping in the Visayas

After taking three flights and a trike (Filipino version of a tuk tuk), we finally made to the Philippines! The Philippines is made of 7,107 different islands and our first stop was to a group of centrally located islands called the Visayas. It was 7 AM so we checked into our guesthouse in the city of Dumaguete where we enjoyed the complimentary rooftop breakfast of sticky rice with melted chocolate drizzled on top and then promptly passed out for the next few hours.

We booked three dives to nearby Apo Island through our guesthouse for the next morning. We woke up, got fitted for equipment and made our way to the small island off the coast of Dumaguete with our dive boat.IMG_2353 (1024x768) IMG_2358 (1024x768) IMG_2395 (1024x768)All three of the dives were amazing. The most memorable was a drift dive where the current was so strong I had to hold the regulator in my mouth because it felt like it was going to be ripped out. At one point, we all clung on to a few rocks to watch a huge school of jackfish but the current was so strong I could barely hold on, even with both hands. The other two dives had beautiful trenches covered with coral and reef fish. Throughout the day we saw turtles, puffer fish, lionfish, starfish, sea cucumbers, schools of jackfish, sea snakes, scorpion fish, leaf fish, and my new favorite…nudibranchs and tip worms!

The dive boat dropped us off on the shores of Apo Island before heading back to Dumaguete. We found a place to stay, rented snorkel gear and promptly hit up the beach with just a few hours of daylight remaining. IMG_2534 (1024x768)The main section of beach in front of Apo Island is known to be teeming with turtles that come to feed off the coral and sea grass. We entered the water and before we knew it, everywhere we looked, there were turtles. We couldn’t count them all if we tried and had to pick and choose which ones to swim with and watch. We’ve swam with turtles in Hawaii but never with so many in one place…it was awesome!IMG_2458 (1024x768) IMG_2460 (1024x768) IMG_2475 (1024x768) IMG_2520 (1024x768) IMG_2567 (1024x768) IMG_2571 (1024x768) IMG_2548 (1024x768) IMG_2600 (1024x768)After a couple of hours snorkeling with the turtles, we snapped a few photos of the setting sun, found dinner and called it a night.IMG_2536 (1024x768)The next morning, we woke up early and hit the beach for another snorkeling session. The reef was so nice and the turtles were so active that we came back to shore, ate lunch, and went back again in the afternoon. Aside from turtles, the reef was filled with beautiful coral, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, puffer fish and clown fish (who were so incredibly curious!) swimming around their colorful anemones.IMG_2668 (1024x768) IMG_2684 (1024x768) IMG_2614 (1024x768) IMG_2578 (1024x768) IMG_2637 (1024x768)Unfortunately, for about every five turtles we saw, we’d come across a black and white banded sea snake, meaning we saw a lot of sea snakes (definitely not my favorite). They breathe air so they would slither their way to the surface and then back down to the sandy shore. Even the photos give me the heebie jeebies!IMG_2504 (1024x768) IMG_2609 (1024x768) IMG_2650 (1024x768) IMG_2625 (1024x768)The dive boat picked us back up in the afternoon to take us back to Dumaguete. That evening, we went out to dinner and then hung out on the guesthouse rooftop for free oysters. Chris and I easily killed at least four dozen oysters and had our first Filipino beer, Red Horse. We sat with the people we had gone diving with and got the low-down on our next stop in the Philippines…Panglao Island. Transportation can become a nightmare when you are trying to jump from island to island and fellow travelers have proven to be the best resource for transport info!

We woke up pretty early the next morning to make our way to the ferry terminal for our fast boat to Bohol Island. We crammed into a tricycle with another traveler and made our way to Alona Beach on Panglao Island.IMG_2717 (1024x768)After searching and searching for a decent guesthouse, we were finally successful and headed to the beach for the rest of the day for swimming and sun. The beach was beautiful and the sand was so fine and soft it felt like mud!IMG_2719 (1024x768) IMG_2724 (1024x768) IMG_2722 (1024x768) IMG_2735 (1024x768)We found a great barbecue joint close to our guesthouse offering different combo meals of grilled meats and fresh seafood. Barbeque pork and barbeque chicken served with rice and iced tea has been our go-to meal for the past three nights.????????The next day we rented a motorbike for an all-day adventure to the neighboring island of Bohol (connected to Panglao Island by bridge). Our first stop was the Chocolate Hills which were formed by the uplifting of coral deposits mixed with time, rains and erosion – definitely pretty scenery we’ve never seen before!SONY DSC ???????? ???????? ????????We left the Chocolate Hills, made a few stops for snacks and were driving through rural unpaved roads when dark clouds started to roll in. We made it about 15 minutes before a downpour ensued. Luckily, we had pulled over next to a locals’ home and the family waved us over to take shelter in their hut. We spent the next hour and a half watching the rain, chatting with the family and the watching the father shuck a pile of coconuts. I can’t believe I didn’t snap a photo of the nice family before we left, but I did take a photo of their crazy pet monkey named “Monkey.”???????? DSC02258 (1024x681)The rains subsided but we were following the tail end of the storm so we were pretty wet when we rolled up to the Tarsier Conservation Park. We weren’t overly enthusiastic about this stop so Chris dried himself in the waiting room while I went into the park. For $1.50 I was able to see about a half dozen tarsiers – small primates with giant eyeballs and very long tails. They were cute in an ugly way and were definitely worth a quick look.DSC02261 (1024x681) DSC02270 (1024x681) DSC02273 (1024x681)We hopped back on the bike, made our way past town after town, crossed the bridge and were finally back in Panglao. We rented the motorbike for eight hours and I doubted we’d use it for that long but sure enough, we rolled in with only two minutes to spare and right before it started to get dark.

The folks we dove with on Apo Island told us that even though Apo was awesome, Panglao was even better. We didn’t really plan on diving while we were on Panglao but dives in the Philippines are cheap(!) so we booked two dives to the neighboring island of Balicasag. The boat ride out to the island was beautiful and the dives were amazing.IMG_2743 (1024x768)I think we can say that they were our favorite dives so far because we saw so many things we’ve never seen before and such a wide variety of sea life – frog fish, schools of angelfish (hundreds and hundreds!), schools of jackfish, stonefish, floating flatworms, tons of nudibranchs, lionfish, gigantic fan coral (larger than a person), tuna, grouper, etc. One of the dives was along a rock cliff that dropped 50 meters to the ocean floor and the different types of fish and coral were just unreal.  I wish we had photos of the things we saw but at the same time, it’s so nice to fully enjoy the experience without having to try to capture everything by camera!

We loved Panglao…the beach, reefs and food were all awesome, but it was time to move on. The next morning, we took a jeepney, tricycle, ferry, and two more jeepneys to the neighboring island of Cebu (told you transportation is complicated here). Jeepneys are old military jeeps from WWII that are now the most popular (and colorful) means of public transport in the Philippines.

Chris found us an awesome guesthouse to stay in so we relaxed for the remainder of the day. We awoke very early the next morning to make our way to Oslob, a small town on the southern tip of Cebu Island, to swim with whale sharks! Once we finally reached Oslob, we were given a short briefing, snorkel gear and hopped into a boat that took us to where about eight different whale sharks were swimming. IMG_2813 (1024x768) IMG_2786 (1024x768)Although whale sharks can grow to be up to 40 feet long, they are harmless and incredibly gentle giants. Chris guesstimates that the largest one we saw was 30 feet. They were so big and we were swimming so close that it was hard to photograph their entire body in one shot. IMG_2778 (1024x768) IMG_2802 (1024x768) IMG_2775 (1024x768) IMG_2794 (1024x768)Despite their name, whale sharks are classified as fish, not whales or sharks. They mainly feed off plankton and when they eat, they look like giant vacuum cleaners!  IMG_2806 (1024x768) IMG_2801 (1024x768)Swimming with whale sharks was such a great way to end our trip to the Visayas! We’ve been in the Visayas for eight days and have already visited seven different islands, logged five dives and five snorkel trips. It’s been a jam packed first week and we are looking forward to chilling out on the beach for awhile. From Cebu, we fly to the island of Palawan, the largest and most western province in the Philippines!

Exploring Indonesia By Land And Sea

Our next destination was Ubud in central Bali which was made famous by the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love. We checked in to our homestay in the center of Ubud and spent what time was left in the day walking through the rice fields on the outskirts of town just as the sun was going down.???????? ????????The next day, we wanted to taste one of Bali’s famed dishes, ‘babi guling,’ which translates to suckling pig. The pig is stuffed and infused with a variety of spices and then roasted on the spit. Anthony Bourdain recommended going to Ibu Oka’s which was super convenient because it was just two blocks away from where we were staying. We ordered the ‘special’ which was a combination of pork roll, fried pig meat, sausage and pork skin on rice with vegetables. It was good but if I could do it again, I would have ordered a plate of just the meat, which was definitely the best part.????????We rented a motorbike for six hours which cost us $2.50 (including gas) and were off to explore the town. Ubud is exactly how you picture Bali to be in your head. There are fields of rice paddies, small temples, monkeys sitting on the street corners and friendly Balinese people waving as you drive down the twisting roads. Small cafes, shops and restaurants are everywhere. It’s touristy, but beautiful and easy to see why people love it so much.

Ubud is a small town and can easily be explored by motorbike in a couple of hours so we started to head north of town towards the rice terraces of Tegalalang. This is what I came to Bali to see because I love rice terraces!???????? ????????We continued driving further north looking for a place to stop for a cup of coffee. We weren’t searching for any ordinary cup of coffee but the famous ‘kopi luwak’ or ‘civet coffee’ which is the most expensive and low-production variety of coffee in the world. We stumbled across Sebatu, where they brew the ‘cat poop coffee’ on location. We started with a tour of their gardens where they grow a variety of different spices, herbs, cacao and coffee beans. We picked a few of the very ripe, red coffee berries to try to feed to one of the many civet cats on their grounds. The civet cats looked like a cross between a ferret and a weasel. They looked cute at first but were vicious little creatures!???????? ????????The civet cats eat the ripe coffee berries which are digested and the bean is passed out of their system. The excrement is collected, washed, peeled, roasted and ground into a coffee…a real delicacy for some! It’s believed that the natural fermentation process in the civet cat’s digestive process creates a more aromatic and less bitter bean.???????? ????????The tour included a complimentary tea/coffee tasting, but we had to pay $5 for a cup of the kopi luwak coffee. According to Wikipedia, a pound of kopi luwak coffee can sell for $200 a pound so I guess we got a good deal! It didn’t taste much different from regular coffee but I do think the coffee grounds have a much stronger aroma than traditional Balinese coffee.???????? ????????We made our way back to Ubud and the next day, were back on the motorbike heading north again. This time, our destination was Mt. Batur, a volcano on the northern side of Bali. The view of the volcano and lake below were beautiful. We had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the views before heading back towards Ubud.???????? ???????? ????????On the way back into town, we stopped at a different kopi luwak tour for their complimentary tea/coffee pick-me-up (no cup of kopi luwak this time). As we passed by Tegalalang, we decided to have a walk around the terraces. Thankfully, we visited the terraces in the dry season so we could climb around the hillside to enjoy the views.???????? ???????? ????????Once we were back in Ubud, we finalized our preparations for our next destination in Indonesia… Gili Air. The Gili’s are a group of three small islands off the coast of Lombok and Gili Air was said to be the best place of the three to relax and chill out for a few days. The following morning, we took a minivan to Pandangbai, a harbor on the east coast of Bali and boarded a fast-boat which took us to the island of Gili Air.

We docked on the island and set off towards the north end where we had reserved accommodations. We ditched our stuff in the room and went straight for a swim in the warm, crystal clear water. The beach isn’t the best due to the washed up coral but the ocean views were pretty amazing.IMG_1485 (1024x768) IMG_1488 (1024x768) IMG_1490 (1024x768)That night, we walked to a local warung (Indonesian for small restaurant) called Warung Muslim. We went for the ‘nasai campur’ which literally translates to ‘mixed rice.’  It’s a heaping pile of white rice, hot chilis, vegetables, fried tofu, shredded chicken and peanuts for 15,000 rupiah (about $1.50). It’s sooo delicious that we came back every day for lunch during our six day stay on Gili Air. Locals and tourists alike love it so much its become an institution. If you visit Gili Air, a trip to the warung is a must – don’t let the looks of the food stall scare you away.????????We heard that to fully appreciate everything the Gilis have to offer, you have to go on a few dives so we decided Gili Air was the perfect place to take our open water scuba course.  I’ve been on a few resort dives in the Caymen Islands and Chris and I did a dive in Cozumel but we wanted the real deal. We chose a three day course with Manta Dive and were paired with two other girls, SeYoung from South Korea, Alex from Switzerland and our instructor, Jan (pronounced Yawn), also Swiss.

The first day, we were in the pool learning four basic scuba skills. We were surprised but very excited to find out that we were going on our first dive that afternoon. Our first dive was to a max depth of 12 meters (40 feet) with the first 15 minutes practicing the skills we learned and the last 45 minutes on a fun dive exploring the reef. The visibility was amazing, it was easily 25 meters (82+ feet) and we saw some cool reef fish we’ve never seen before, a moray eel and some beautiful coral. Sorry, no underwater photos, our camera only works up to 10 meters.IMG_1515 (1024x768) IMG_1518 (1024x768)The next day was very similar. We started in the pool doing drills and learning skills and then were back in the ocean in the afternoon. Our second dive was a drift dive so we didn’t have to swim at all; we were just carried away by the current. The entire ocean floor was a giant bed of coral, it looked like a garden in the sea – so pretty! We also saw our first sea turtle…so awesome.

That night, we moved out of our room to a sweet bungalow right next door to the dive shop (and a closer walk to the warung!). It was just a few meters from the beach and we were able to pick-up the WiFi from the dive shop and it cost us just $13 a night…score!????????The third and last day, we didn’t go into the pool at all, we just had one morning dive and one afternoon dive but this time to a depth of 18 meters (60 feet). Again, the visibility on all of these dives was ridiculous – you could see so far. Even when we were in the boat, you could look down and see the ocean floor. It was some of the clearest water either of us has ever been in. On our last two dives we saw giant clams, tons of sea anemones with clown fish, puffer fish, another moray eel, heaps of angelfish, parrotfish and many more fish and coral (I love coral!) that we had to look up and log because we had never seen them before. We saw several sea turtles and were able to get so close to them I couldn’t believe they didn’t get scared away.

Each of our dives was unique and we learned something different. It was nice that our four dive locations were spread out among the three Gili islands so we were able to see a little of each island. After completing our four dives, we took a quick swim test and written test and that was it – we were certified divers! We had such a great group and our instructor was awesome.IMG_1540 (1024x768) IMG_1543 (1024x768) ????????It was so weird waking up the next day not having a dive scheduled. Instead of diving, we rented snorkel gear for $1.50 each, and went snorkeling right off the beach. For some reason, our expectations were really low so we were blown away by all the sea life just a few meters off the shore. This time, we had our underwater camera in tow so were able to snap a few photos of the sea life.IMG_1583 (1024x768) IMG_1594 (1024x768) IMG_1640 (1024x768) IMG_1631 (1024x768) IMG_1642 (1024x768)Because we grossly over-estimated the cost of snorkeling in Asia, we decided to pool the snorkeling money we received from our honeyfund and put it towards the ultimate snorkeling experience…scuba certifications. So a huge thanks to the following people in no particular order: Mary Tom and David Thor, the Kronengolds, Jessica  Simmons, Ben Barasky, Anna Williams and Jon Bak, Virginia Waldkirch, Emily Flowers, Dayne Murray and the Smittles for helping us get certified! We had an absolute amazing time learning to dive and now that we are certified, we are certified for life. It’s something we look forward to doing for many years to come so thank you all for getting us started on a new hobby we can enjoy together!

That evening, we finally had time to walk around the entire island which took just over an hour. The island is closed to cars and motorbikes and there’s a nice trail you can take along the coast all the way around. ???????? ????????Afterwards, we enjoyed dinner at Wiwin Café, our usual restaurant to sit right on the water. We went there every night because it had cheap and delicious local and western dishes and the ambiance was amazing.???????? ????????We will definitely miss the Gilis! We contemplated extending our stay for a few more days but I don’t believe we’d ever think it was a good time to leave. From here, we head to southern Lombok in search of some killer waves brah!

Thailand: Bangkok and Beaches

We spent our seven month travelversary flying from Auckland to Singapore to Bangkok. This is the first time either of us has been to Asia and Thailand is our first stop on our southeast Asia itinerary. We were especially excited to meet up with three of our friends from Chicago who will travel with us for the next two weeks. It’s been nearly five months since our last visitor and we’re looking forward to the added company and catching up with old friends!

Chris and I arrived at our hostel in Bangkok around 10:30 p.m. and impatiently waited for Jason, Dan and Julie to arrive. After four hours of drinking Changs (Thai lager with 6.5% ABV though apparently the actual percentage is unknown and can vary between beers) they finally arrived! We were so excited to see them that we had a very late night in Bangkok and I forgot to snap a reunion photo.

The next morning, we powered through our Chang-overs in search of some Thai food for breakfast. We followed a few alleys and streets until we rounded the corner into a local food market. We sat down at a small “restaurant” stall where a woman took our orders. Each dish came out one at a time because she only had one burner to cook everything on. I ordered pad thai with shrimp and it was hands down the best I’ve ever had! It was sweet, savory and spicy and cost a little more than $2. Chris had shrimp fried rice and it was good but mine was clearly the table winner.????????
We walked from our hostel down to the Chao Phraya River where we boarded a ferry to take us up the river to explore the city. SONY DSCWe navigated through narrow streets filled with vendors selling everything from electronics, clothes, food, fresh fruit, pre-portioned meals to-go, drinks, jewelry, etc. Whatever you need, you can find on the streets of Bangkok. Thai bacon and eggs anyone????????? ???????? SONY DSC SONY DSC ????????We ended the day on Koh San Road, the gathering place and mecca for backpackers traveling through Bangkok and SE Asia. After a few Changs and a wild tuk tuk ride for five people, we explored the neighborhood around our hostel for dinner and drinks before calling it a night.

We spent the following day walking around Bangkok’s Chinatown. We’ve been to several Chinatowns in the U.S. (San Francisco, New York and Chicago), but this one takes the cake for most authentic. It was a sensory overload. The crowded streets were filled with shops, congested traffic and vendors selling exotic foods. Yes, those are grilled frogs on a stick – yummy. ???????? ???????? ????????The day before was the Chinese New Year so the area was fully decorated and incredibly festive. People were gathering around the main Chinatown gate and temple to pray and light incense.???????? ???????? ????????That evening we were back at Koh San Road to catch our overnight bus to the beach. Koh San Road is lined with bars, restaurants, shops and massage parlors. At night, backpackers flock to the area and the streets and surrounding alleys come alive with activity. ???????? ????????With a few hours to kill before we departed, we spent our time feasting on pad thai from the local street vendors ($1.50) and splurging on foot massages ($6 for 30 minutes).???????? ???????? SONY DSC ????????When we awoke from our overnight bus/ferry combo, we were on the island of Koh Tao. We disembarked the ferry and went to work finding a place to stay. We scored a beach house right on the water for five people – it was perfect! We literally spent the entire day swimming in the water and walking on the beach (while fitting a few Changs in, of course).IMG_0457 (1024x768) IMG_0458 (1024x768) IMG_0473 (1024x768) IMG_0468 (1024x768) IMG_0486 (1024x768)At night, we caught a fire show on the beach. We’ve seen fire shows before but this one was impressive (even to Julie who now lives in Hawaii). One of the highlights was when one of the guys swung two beach-ball sized balls of fire around in the air creating a whirlwind of flying fire. It was beautiful and completely unexpected.IMG_0504 (1024x768)The show started to become interactive with the audience. They lit a long jump rope on fire and encouraged the audience to run in and jump. I read about these several years ago. A lot of inebriated tourists will attempt it but will end up with burns on their bodies. We sat there watching and my heart started to race, which is the first sign that I really want to do something. Without telling anyone, I stood up and ran into the jump rope of fire. I jumped twice before I thought I should probably get out. I wasn’t worried about burns on my body, I was more worried about burning all of the hair off my scalp. When I ran out, I started to think the rope was going to catch me on the head so in front of the entire audience, I ninja rolled out of the line of fire. I wish we had photos but it was such a spontaneous decision, no one was prepared to capture the moment. Although the fire on the rope was on its way out, a few minutes later, Chris jumped in and I was able to take a short video:

The next morning, we rented kayaks and snorkel gear so we could explore Koh Nang Yuan, an island just a few kilometers away from Koh Tao. It took about 35 minutes before Chris and I reached the shore.IMG_0513 (1024x768) IMG_0515 (1024x768) IMG_0532 (1024x768)We were disappointed with the snorkeling because most of the coral was dead so we took a walk around one of the islands on the sketchiest walkway we’ve ever been on. We met someone a day before who was on crutches and when I asked what happened, they replied that they were on a bridge that collapsed. This must have been where it happened. With three civil and construction engineers in our group, we tiptoed around on the support beams while other tourists ran past us without any worry. A fire jump rope… no problem, but a sketchy bridge ready to collapse? Now that is scary.IMG_0545 (1024x768) IMG_0544 (1024x768)The walk and climb up the makeshift stairs to the scenic overlook was well worth the journey over to the three small adjoining islands. It was beautiful!IMG_0550 (1024x768) IMG_0556 (1024x768)That evening, we stocked up on provisions for our evening journey from Koh Tao to Koh Phi Phi. After an overnight ferry, tuk tuk, bus, mini-van and another ferry, we arrived in Koh Phi Phi the next morning. The boys found another room for five people just a few yards from the beach. We spent the day eating, swimming and soaking in our surroundings.IMG_0623 (1024x768) IMG_0643 (1024x768)We spent the evening roaming along the crowded streets people watching. The highlight was the street food and watching Jason play with a monkey.IMG_0661 (1024x768) IMG_0662 (1024x768) IMG_0663 (1024x768) IMG_0654 (1024x768) IMG_0657 (1024x768)The next morning Jason and Dan left to catch the early ferry to Phuket while Chris, Julie and I hired a longboat to take us to the nearby islands to snorkel and explore before catching a late afternoon ferry. Koh Phi Phi is nice but the main attractions are the uninhabited islands next door. We stopped at Monkey Bay to see more monkeys but the best parts were our visits to Pi-leh Bay and Maya Bay.IMG_0678 (1024x768) IMG_0688 (1024x768) IMG_0711 (1024x768) IMG_0714 (1024x768)People flock to Maya Bay to see the utopia featured in the movie The Beach. The island is crowded with boats and tourists but for good reason, it’s gorgeous!  IMG_0739 (1024x768) IMG_0742 (1024x768) IMG_0749 (1024x768) IMG_0760 (1024x768)The three of us caught our ferry to Phuket and cleaned up before meeting Dan and Jason out at Patong Beach. The main road along Patong Beach, Bangla Road, is the Bourbon Street of Phuket. It is wild. It is overly entertaining. It is awesome. Sorry, no crazy pictures of the evening’s events for our PG-13 audience, you’ll just have to use your imagination.IMG_0770 (1024x768) IMG_0786 (1024x768)We spent our last day in Phuket finalizing logistics for our last week in Thailand with our friends. We stole away for a couple of minutes to check out the beach before heading to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.IMG_0787 (1024x768)This past week has been a whirlwind! We are moving much quicker than normal because there is so much to see and do while we have visitors here. It’s been incredible to share this time with our friends and we have a lot more planned for their last week!