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Backwards Glances: Remembering Three Years in Southeast Asia

Backwards Glances: Remembering Three Years in Southeast Asia

June 1st, 2015: The day we arrived in Southeast Asia.

October 1st, 2018: The day we departed from Southeast Asia.

If you’d told me even five years ago that I would spend — not one, but over THREE — years of my life living in Southeast Asia, I would’ve laughed. A lot.

Because the thing is: Asia never really “called” to me.

What calls to me? The mountains. The deserts. Wide open spaces. Big blue skies and endless open space to ride horses (or other large creatures) for miles on end. That’s my “thing.” That’s why places like New Zealand and Egypt hold such incredible appeal for me personally. That’s why we lived in New Zealand for a year and celebrated our 10-year anniversary in Egypt.

Asia was always Jeremy’s “thing.” He wanted to come here and meet the people, taste the food, explore the cultures. Since I was long ago bitten by the travel bug, I came along for the ride. Gladly.

And am I ever glad I did!

In this post, I’m simply going to reminisce about the places we lived, the places we visited, and the awesome people we met along the way.

So buckle up! Here’s a one-blog recap of the past 39 months.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (June-October 2015)

Our first landing spot in Southeast Asia was the colorful and multicultural city of Kuala Lumpur. While we technically lived in a suburb just outside the city, Petaling Jaya, it’s all part of the greater “KL” area.

What do I remember most from KL? The Petronas Towers, of course. (Still the largest twin structures in the world.) And the seamless blend of Indian, Chinese, and Muslim Malay cultures, all living and working side by side.

KL Malaysia

Also worthy of a mention? Our beautiful apartment at Eve Suite, with a wall of windows that overlooked downtown KL. #bestapartmentever

I could ramble on for days about how delicious and unique the food is in Malaysia, but I’ll have to settle for a few photos of my favorites: dosa (Indian), bak kuh teh (Chinese), and nasi lemak (Malay). You can read more about our favorite Malaysian and Singaporean foods here.

And although we didn’t get to stay in Malaysia as long as we would have liked to, we still got to explore some other parts of the country, including the seaside town of Malacca, the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, and the cool tropical rainforests of the Genting Highlands.

If Malaysia was so great, why didn’t we stay longer? There were a number of reasons, but the biggest was the 2015 Haze Crisis, caused by uncontrolled burning in Indonesia and a lack of monsoon rains that summer.

At this point, we had the unexpected opportunity to relocate to Bangkok, Thailand — so we did!

But before we left, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our one and only visa run we got to do while living in KL. Where to?

None other than exotic India.

Everything You’ve Heard About India… Is True

delhi india

I couldn’t really think of a better way to sum up two weeks in the world’s most crowded, chaotic, and colorful country.

Every stereotype you hear is true. India is a nonstop assault on your senses, particularly your ears and nose. Horns honk 24 hours a day. The crowds in the cities are unlike anything you knew existed. The roadways are a catastrophe of pedestrians, rickshaws, livestock, and trash. Every aroma–from the curries and spices to the pungent scent of cow manure–hits you like a punch in the face.

And yes, poverty is everywhere, out in the open, staring back at you or asking for money as you walk by.

As Jeremy said–and I completely agree–it’s impossible to visit India and remain unchanged. You are not the same person on your departing flight as you were when you arrived.

And yet, if you can get past the initial sensory onslaught, there are so many beautiful things you can experience in India too.

Here’s a little taste of what we saw in our two weeks divided between Chennai, Jodphur, Jaipur, Agra, and New Delhi.

Not long after our visit to India, we found ourselves on our way to Thailand to escape the aforementioned haze. Little did we know our trip to the islands and to Bangkok wasn’t going to be a trip at all–it was a move!

Bangkok: Home Sweet Home

Our first stop was the incredibly beautiful Ko Phi Phi, which remains our favorite island anywhere. I mean…LOOK at this place!

Next came our introduction to bustling Bangkok. Little did we know that it would become our home base for the next three years!

What can I say about Bangkok (BKK)? A lot of the stereotypes are true here, too. There’s a wild side to the city that’s there if that’s what you’re looking for, but overall, it’s a big thriving city of 11 million people.

Megamalls selling Ferraris and Lamborghinis sit a block away from tarp-covered markets selling $1 bowls of curry. The ultramodern Skytrain whisks you through the city high above the 24-hour traffic jams along Sukhumvit Road.

There are millions of motorcycles. Stray dogs everywhere. Floods during the rainy season. Oppressive heat and humidity 365 days a year. Street food on every corner. 

It’s a hot, alluring, glorious mess. They call it “The Big Mango,” Asia’s equivalent to “The Big Apple” of New York City.

There is an energy in Bangkok that exists nowhere else on earth. And it was so awesome to be a part of it!

Because of our required visa runs every few months, we didn’t get to explore as much of Thailand as we would have liked. Aside from multiple trips to Ko Phi Phi, where else did we visit?

Chiang Mai lies in Thailand’s north, a cultural hub and expat haven. We had the privilege of joining our friends for an international convention there in November 2015, as well as volunteering some time at an elephant rescue center!

We also enjoyed visits to the beach town of Hua Hin, the island of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, and Khao Yai National Park.

Thailand is a huge and incredibly diverse country. It’s also surrounded by a dozen countries that are just as unique in their history, culture, and food.

Our visa runs took us to virtually every country in southeast Asia–even the border we crossed accidentally! It’s hard to pick a favorite because each is beautiful and special in its own way.

Since I’ve already rambled for a while, here’s a quick photo journey through the surrounding countries we were privileged enough to visit.

Cambodia: Dark History, Bright Future

Neighboring Cambodia made the headlines in the 1970s during the horrific Khmer Rouge. I wrote a post describing some of what happened here.

The good news is that the political system and economy have stabilized in recent years, opening the nation to tourists eager to learn more about its rich history.

Highlights of Cambodia definitely include the Temples of Angkor–lost in the jungle for centuries–and the backpacker haven of Siem Reap.

angkor cambodia

 

We loved this area so much, we ended up taking three separate trips to visit–in 2009, 2016, and 2018!

Vietnam: Exploring Hanoi & Sapa

Vietnam was our first taste of Southeast Asia back in 2009, and we loved it then. Shame it took us almost a decade to return, but we’re so glad we did!

Our 2017 visa run to Vietnam included a few days in the lovely capital city of Hanoi. With strong French colonial influences in the architecture and food, Hanoi is nothing but pleasant and enjoyable.

A cool addition to this visa run was a last-minute decision to take the winding road up to Sapa, up in the mountains of northern Vietnam along the border of China.

This gave us the chance to scale the peak of Fansipan, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain at 10,312 feet (3,143m).

After this visit, we contemplated moving to Hanoi and trying our hand at life in Vietnam. It didn’t work out for now, but down the road?

You never know…

Singapore: Foodie Heaven

It’s no secret we’re obsessed with Singapore. I wax poetic about it in this post, so I won’t repeat myself.

Suffice to say, this tiny island nation and our dear friends there will forever hold a piece of our hearts. (And the food–let’s not forget the food!)

Of all the places we’ve visited in Asia, Singapore is #1 on my list of destinations to return to!

Nepal: Face to Face with the Himalayas

For our 9-year anniversary in 2017, we ticked off a serious bucket list item–visiting Nepal.

What started as a visa run gone wrong (the Thai Embassy was shut the entire week we were there) turned into an incredible experience of making new friends and journeying on a 4-day trek along the Annapurna Circuit.

Here’s a quick collection from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and the Poon Hill Trek.

One thing is for sure: Nepal is NOT overrated.

Bali: Indonesia’s Island Paradise

From the highest mountains on Earth to one of the planet’s most famous islands, 2017 was an epic year of visa runs.

The summer of 2017 took us to Bali, one of Indonesia’s 17,000+ islands. (Ironically, it was right before its volcano erupted!) Luckily our trip was smooth sailing, letting us rent a car and travel around the island.

Its iconic rice fields, black sand beaches, backpacker towns, and ancient temples did not disappoint! We even got to try some authentic kopi luwak at a coffee plantation.

Ujung Water Palace.

amed beach bali

water temple bedugul bali lake

giant fruit bat bali

ubud horse riding bali

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bali road trip

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I don’t know if we’ll ever return to Bali, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it once!

Japan

By the summer of 2018, we knew we’d be returning (at least temporarily) to the US. The one Asian destination that had eluded us–up to that point–was Japan.

We couldn’t leave Asia without seeing Jeremy’s dream destination in person. And so, despite the super typhoon that rocked the nation only three days before our departure (and forced us to change our entire itinerary), we still got to enjoy a week in Tokyo and the Mount Fuji area.

Oh, and if you go to Japan, don’t miss Fuji-Q Highland. Biggest and baddest roller coasters on Earth.

‘Nuff said!

It’s the People, Not the Place

As incredible as the sights in Asia are, what truly made our time there special were the friends we made along the way.

I could include hundreds–if not thousands–of photos of the faces that became so dear to us. In conclusion, I’ll only post a few.

What else can I say? Korp khun ka, Southeast Asia.

Thanks for the amazing memories!

 

A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

A Journey Through Cambodia: Past and Present

When I first visited Cambodia back in 2009, it was my first taste of traveling in a third world country. But a lot has happened in Cambodia–for the better–in the past nine years.

To understand the Cambodia of today, it’s important to know the Cambodia of the past. It’s a small country by Asian standards, with a population of 15 million. It’s bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east.

Due to its unfortunate location, during the Vietnam War the US military dropped tons of unused artillery on this poor country of farmers and laborers. In the same decade, Cambodia also became the only country in modern history to commit genocide against its own people.

In 1975, as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, a Communist revolutionary named Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia and instituted what would become known as the Khmer Rouge. Over the next four years, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge captured, tortured, and executed an estimated 2-3 million of its own people, targeting educated men and women or anyone else who could potentially be a spy. Mass graves known as “killing fields” are littered around the country in a gruesome reminder of the not so distant past.

As if that wasn’t tragic enough, during the decades of upheaval from the 1970s to the 1990s, different factions planted millions of landmines throughout the country. Cambodia now has the largest population of amputees anywhere in the world, and every day, landmines continue to maim and kill innocent men, women, and children.

The good news in all of this is that, after a few decades of relative peace, Cambodia’s war wounds are finally beginning to heal. Although it’s still classified as a third world nation, there have been some radical changes in recent years. China, Korea, and other wealthy nations have begun investing in Cambodia, bringing new business and jobs into the cities. The capital of Phnom Penh, which seven years ago was little more than dirt roads and rusty tuk-tuks, is now full of high-rise offices, luxury hotels, and shiny new BMWs.

I was amazed at the difference in so short a period of time.

Ready to explore the country beyond its bustling capital, we took a comfortable overnight bus ride from Phnom Penh six hours north to the smaller city of Siem Reap. You may not be familiar with the name of the city, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of what everyone comes here to see: the temples of Angkor. They are to this day the most beautiful, fascinating, and impressive historical sites I have ever seen.

What’s even more amazing is that this ancient temple complex was buried in the jungle for the better part of a millennium, virtually unknown to the outside world until French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it back in 1860. His impression?

“One of these temples–a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo–might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Even though excavation and restoration work went on for most of the 20th century, the decades of war and civil strife made the site inaccessible to foreign tourists. Today, though, all are welcome to Cambodia to visit the incomparable temples of Angkor.

Angkor Wat is the one you hear about the most, and rightly so. It is the single largest religious structure in the world, a 12th-century Hindu masterpiece crowned with five lotus-shaped spires rising 200 feet off the ground. Located in an isolated region, surrounded by impenetrable jungle and an enormous moat, it’s easy to see why it got “lost” for centuries.

Although all those years of neglect and war took their toll on the building, it stayed remarkably intact. Even now, extensive restoration efforts are taking place on Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

Angkor, however, is much more than just one temple. It was, in fact, the thriving capital city of the ancient Khmer Kingdom, which flourished during the 11th-13th centuries and controlled much of what is now Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Satellite imagery suggests Angkor may have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering an area of nearly 400 square miles. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the impressive ruins attract over 2 million starry-eyed visitors every year.

Our day of touring began at the unfortunate hour of 4am, when our friendly tuk-tuk driver Dewan picked us up at our hotel so we could be at Angkor Wat to see the sunrise.

Was it worth it? For sure.

After that (and a much-needed breakfast) came the temple of Bayon, covered with hundreds of giant stone faces of the 13th-century Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.

The highlight, though, was the temple of Ta Phrom, which remains virtually untouched from its “lost in the jungle” state. Enormous trees have overtaken the temple, breaking down walls, wrapping around doorways, and stretching for the sky. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this is the place!

The town of Siem Reap hasn’t changed much since 2009. It’s still a cozy little backpacker’s paradise, with cheap guesthouses and even cheaper food and drinks. Pub Street is very much alive and well, with massage parlors on every corner, and there’s even a new Cineplex where you can see the latest 3D movies for an astounding $4.

English is widely spoken, too, and everyone will readily bend over backward to accommodate you. Just arrived at 5am on the overnight bus? No worries, ma’am, we’ll get a room ready for you. Don’t have your own 3D glasses for the movie? You can borrow a pair, free of charge. Want to use our luxury swimming pool? We’ll waive the entrance fee if you buy a ($1) beer or cocktail. Massage in our day spa? Here’s a 20% discount, just because we feel like it.

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll leave Siem Reap feeling like nothing less than a rock star.

In fact, every time I visit, I’m amazed and humbled by the friendly, smiling people and the beautiful sights in this materially poor but culturally rich country. Despite its turbulent past, I can’t help but feel that the future of Cambodia is looking brighter and brighter.

Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

January 12th. 1 pm. Petra, Jordan.

It flourished as an ancient civilization for over 500 years. Then, forgotten by the outside world, it faded into obscurity and disappeared off the map for centuries. It’s best known for Indiana Jones’ famous ride through its canyon walls on his quest for the long-lost Holy Grail.

Where is this ancient city?

It’s Petra, the lost (and rediscovered) “Rose City” in Jordan.

petra jordan

Our journey to Petra began at the very early hour of 3 am. We were so excited the night before we barely slept anyway, so it was a relief when our alarm went off and we went downstairs to find our driver waiting for us.

In true Amanda Hotel fashion, Ali had prepared a takeaway breakfast for us of bread, boiled eggs, white cheese, and fresh fruit. Seriously, I love that man.

We drove through the darkened streets to the outskirts of Dahab, where we boarded a bus full of Ukranian tourists. Yep. Somehow we ended up being the only English-speakers on a day tour with about 50 Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Luckily, our guide spoke English too so we weren’t completely lost!

We and the 50 Ukrainians traveled 2 hours north up the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, all the way to the port town of Taba. This tiny town sits right on the border of Israel, and from its port, you can see four countries at once–Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Pretty nifty!

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

As the sun came up, illuminating the barren desert mountains, we cleared Egyptian immigration and boarded our ferry boat, the M/V Petra Wonder. We sped off across the Red Sea, passing the narrow strip of beach that made up Israel’s Red Sea border before docking about an hour later in Aqaba, Jordan.

Needless to say, Aqaba looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago, when Lawrence of Arabia famously captured the port city during WWI through an unexpected land attack. The Port of Aqaba now features dazzling townhomes, luxury yachts, and a whole slew of jetskis.

petra jordan

After clearing Jordanian customs, we boarded another bus and began the two-hour journey north to Petra. Along the way, we passed the city of Aqaba and the barren deserts and canyons of Wadi Rum. The highway hugged the border of Israel almost the entire way up, offering us views into the neighboring country.

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Temperatures hovered around 50F (10C), providing a chilly but pleasant backdrop for the day. After winding through a series of switchbacks and the modern-day town of Petra, we arrived at last at the entrance to the historical city. 50 Jordanian dollars (or about $US70) later, we held in our hands two tickets to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Was it worth the whopping admission fee? HECK. YEAH.

petra jordan

petra jordan

What no one tells you about Petra is how HUGE it is. I imagined turning a corner and seeing the canyon Indy rode through, with the Treasury just a few steps away.

In reality, you have to walk half a mile just to reach the entrance to the canyon (Siq). Then it’s another three-quarters-of-a-mile through the Siq’s winding valley before you catch your first glimpse of the famed Treasury. There’s nothing quick about the journey through Petra, especially when you’re sandwiched in with thousands of other starry-eyed tourists.

But, hey. It is what it is. And it’s oh-so-worth-it.

Our tickets included a “free” horse ride from the visitor’s center to the canyon entrance, which I, of course, took advantage of. While everyone else walked, a guide led me and his horse, Rosie, along the soft dirt path towards the canyon entrance.

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Along the way, we pass horse-drawn buggies and remnants of the ancient civilization carved into the sandstone walls. When we reach the entrance of the Siq, I say goodbye to Rosie, tip her owner, and rejoin the tour group to begin our official exploration.

Here’s a quick history of Petra:

  • Located in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, it was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire from 400 B.C. to 106 A.D.
  • At the height of the Nabateans’ rule, Petra had a population of more than 20,000 inhabitants.
  • Once Rome took control of Petra in 106 A.D., its importance in international trade began to wane.
  • By 700 A.D., Petra was abandoned and forgotten by all but the local Bedouins.
  • In the early 1800s, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig disguised himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrated the “lost city.”
  • To date, only 15% of Petra has been uncovered and cataloged. Experts believe another 85% still remains buried and untouched.

petra jordan

With our mouths agape, we follow the crowds through the Siq’s stunning red, orange, and yellow canyons. At some points, it opens wide above your head. At others, it’s so narrow it almost feels like a cave.

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You aren’t allowed to ride horses through the Siq (bummer), but those who can’t cover the long distance on foot are able to take horse-drawn carts to the Treasury and back. The sound of clip-clopping hooves echoed off the canyon walls, no different than it was 2,000 years ago.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Remarkably, much of the ancient Roman roads are still intact. You can even see the remains of the aqueducts that once supplied water to the thriving population that lived within these canyon walls.

petra jordan

At last, after giving yourself a neckache from staring up at the massive stone walls, you enter the final part of the Siq that leads to the famous Treasury.

petra jordan

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And then–finally–you’re there. Staring at the Treasury of Petra, in all its rose-colored glory.

This is one historical site that is definitely NOT overrated.

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petra jordan

So, now for the million-dollar question: What lies inside Petra’s mysterious Treasury?

A maze of underground halls? Buried treasures? A medieval knight guarding the Holy Grail?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is none of the above. All that lies within the poorly-named Treasury (which never actually held any treasure) is a small hall that once contained a royal tomb.

Still, the facade is stunning. And the great part is that it’s only the beginning of Petra’s wonders. As you venture further, you find more and more evidence of a once-thriving civilization: broad streets, a Roman amphitheater, royal tombs, colonnades, a monastery, and much more.

In the free time that remained, we wandered through some of the ruins to see what else Petra had to offer, besides its famous Treasury. Journey with us!

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We could have spent days–weeks, even–exploring the nooks and crannies of Petra. The ruins are half-built, half-carved into the most colorful rocks you’ve ever seen, reminisce of the US southwest, but on a much grander scale.

Indeed, the “Rose City” captivated us, as it’s been doing to visitors for thousands of years. It’s easy to imagine the city during its heyday, when traders along the Silk Road would have passed through in their caravans of camels and Arabian horses. I can easily envision bustling marketplaces, lively performances at the amphitheater, and the scents of tea and spices in the air.

Unfortunately, time was running out, and we still had to return to Egypt. We enjoyed our second journey through the Siq–just as spectacular from the opposite direction–before we reluctantly boarded our bus and prepared for the long trip back to Dahab.

In case you’ve ever wondered, Petra is not overrated. It does not disappoint. It is every bit as awesome as you imagine it to be–and then some.

My only regret? That we didn’t have more time to spend here.

But that’s okay–something tells me we’ll be back again someday!

petra jordan

Bali’s Best Beaches: Black Sand and Emerald Water

Bali’s Best Beaches: Black Sand and Emerald Water

It was our last day in Bali, and we still had a few things to check off the bucket list. The volcanoes and rice terraces were spectacular, no doubt. But we still hadn’t found Bali’s best beaches.

Truth be told, we hadn’t found any great beaches. The famous backpacker haven of Kuta Beach was quite the disappointment. And while the volcanic backdrop of Amed was stunning, the actual beach was nothing but rocks and stones.

amed beach bali

There was no way we could leave this island paradise without finding at least one amazing beach.

So, over a delicious breakfast of buckwheat crepes at Le Moulin in Ubud, we scoured Google one final time. We knew there was a black sand beach somewhere – a beach that was actually made of sand.

Finally, in an old TripAdvisor forum, I saw a recommendation for a place called Keramas Beach. Google maps said it was 32 minutes away. That was good enough for us!

We checked out of the charming Kamandhandi Hostel and headed south out of Ubud. Approximately half an hour later, we hit the southeast coast (north of Denpasar) and made a comical U-turn to find this “hidden beach.”

This, my friends, is why you should NOT attempt to drive in Bali!

We turned off the main road and onto a completely deserted, bumpy dirt road. We were surrounded on both sides by rice fields, one of which held the remains of an abandoned cargo plane.

keremas beach bali

keramas beach bali

Sure enough, the road dumped us out right on the coast. And, as promised in the forum, we were the only souls in sight on the stunning black sand of Keramas Beach.

keramas beach bali

keramas beach bali

keramas beach

black sand beach

I can’t say how cool it was to have the entire beach to ourselves – especially a rare black sand beach! If you want to get away from the crowds, this is definitely the beach to visit.

The afternoon was slipping away, and we still had a few more stops on our list. Reluctantly we bid goodbye to Keramas Beach and continued south, past Denpasar and Nusa Dua to the very bottom of Bali.

Our earlier internet search had yielded another hidden gem: Green Bowl Beach. Tucked away at the bottom of South Kuta, this beach is not marked and only accessible via a steep 300-step stone staircase.

green bowl beach bali

Was it worth the effort of driving all the way to the bottom of Bali to a basically unknown beach? HECK. YEAH.

green bowl beach bali

green bowl beach bali

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There were a few stragglers lounging around in the late afternoon sun, but once again we almost had the place to ourselves. The water was warm and clear as glass, providing a perfect view of the colorful coral rocks.

bali beach

My only regret is that we didn’t find this gorgeous spot until about 4 pm! Bali travel tip #27: Head to Green Bowl Beach EARLY and plan to spend the day there, because you’ll never want to leave.

But alas, we did have to leave, because we still had one more stop to make. We climbed the 300 steps and got back in our trusty Honda Brio, heading west to Uluwatu. Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean.

Uluwatu is ranked the #4 surf destination on earth, and it’s easy to understand when you see the ENORMOUS swells rolling in from the open ocean. We didn’t go to Uluwatu to surf, though. We went to visit the famous 11th-century Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu.

Our goal was to watch the sunset, as this spot supposedly has the best sunsets in Bali. However, due to a sudden rainstorm and one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever seen, it didn’t exactly work out that way. I jumped out and walked a good distance to the temple while Jeremy tried (and failed) to find a parking space in the chaos.

I got drenched and a monkey nearly stole my camera (literally) but I did manage to snag a few shots of the Uluwatu sunset.

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uluwatu temple bali

My advice if you want to see an Uluwatu sunset? GO EARLY. The crowds were insane, even in the downpour.

After sitting in more rain and more traffic, we arrived at the lovely Mahogany Hotel in South Kuta. It was a last-minute find, and it turned out to be the nicest place we stayed all week. They even have a ban on durian, which was just fine with us!

Overall impressions of Bali? I’m very glad I went. There are definitely some beautiful sights to see.

Am I dreaming of the day I get to go back? No, I can’t honestly say that I am. I think it’s an amazing island to visit once…but there are so many other places to explore, too!

What’s the next destination on our hit list? That remains to be seen!

Bali Road Trip: Volcanoes and Rice Terraces

Bali Road Trip: Volcanoes and Rice Terraces

It was another beautiful morning in Ubud, Bali. Today was sure to be one of the highlights of our trip: a visit to the famous Tegalalang rice terraces and a drive around the still-active volcanic peak of Mount Batur.

Breakfast was at the fabulous little French cafe, Le Moulin, just a few minutes’ walk from Kamandhani Guesthouse. One of our favorite things about Ubud is the amount of truly stellar food you can find. On one little stretch of road near our guesthouse, you pass Greek, French, Italian, Mexican, and Turkish restaurants, not to mention the local cuisine!

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le moulin ubud
Buckwheat breakfast crepes at Le Moulin.

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English breakfast at Le Moulin, Ubud.

Sufficiently stuffed and ready for the day’s adventure, we set off on the main road leading north out of Ubud. The sun was in and out of the clouds as we drove around half an hour to the tiny town of Tegalalang and their idyllic rice terraces.

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ubud bali

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Tegalalang rice terrace

We parked across the street and began winding our way down the steep hillside (lots of stairs!) towards the stunning rice terraces. Although technically free to tour, the locals have set up little “toll stations” with suggested donations (less than $1) for your visit.

We didn’t mind our first “toll” – these people do need to make a living, after all – but by the third “toll” we felt empowered to say no and continue on our way. Use your own judgment here, and do whatever your conscience moves you to do. It’s a minor annoyance in what’s otherwise a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

As usual, we got so caught up in exploring and taking photos that we soon found ourselves off the beaten path…well off the beaten path! We started backtracking until we met a kindly old farmer who showed us a shorter (and more scenic) way back.

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

While I don’t recommend purposely getting lost, I must say it was nice to have the place to ourselves. While the rest of the tourists were jammed up on the main trail, we were the only souls in sight for close to an hour, save for a few hard-working locals.

tegalalang rice terraces

tegalalang rice terraces

bali

bali road trip

Eventually we found our way back to the main path, where we joined the rest of the tourists in completing the circuit (granted, our tour was probably a tad longer than theirs was).

bali

bali road trip

bali

bali

The Tegalalang rice terraces were stunning, but it was time to move on! We retrieved our car, consulted Google maps, and continued north towards the volcanic peak of Mount Batur.

This area is truly unique because the volcano is actually made of two calderas. The large inner caldera is now home to Lake Batur, while the majestic (and still active) stratovolcano peak rises over 2,000 feet (700m) from the water’s edge.

bali road trip

mount batur bali
Site of Batur’s most recent eruption in 1968.

The rain and clouds that had chased us from Ubud cleared long enough for us to enjoy some breath-taking views of the peak and lake. Eager for a closer look, we started down the long, winding road towards the lakeside. Along the way we discovered Batur Natural Hot Spring, perched right on the edge of the scenic lake.

volcano bali

batur hot springs

lake batur bali

We weren’t prepared for hot springs (and the weather was a bit too warm, anyway), but we took the opportunity to stop for lunch and enjoy the unique scenery. Then we studied the map to determine if we would return to Ubud the same way, or take the more scenic route around the backside of the volcano.

As you probably guessed, we opted for the scenic route.

mount batur
Still have no idea what this means…

mt batur

bali volcano

In an unexpected treat, we reached an area where the lava flow occurred during the most recent eruption in 1968. Not about to pass up the opportunity, we parked the car and hiked up to check out the dried lava.

mount batur lava flow

bali volcano

mount batur lava flow

mount batur lava flow

mount batur lava flow

It was like visiting another planet! The lava dries razor sharp and very uneven, so you definitely have to be careful as you traverse it. It was really incredible, though, to see plants pushing their way up and nature slowly restoring itself.

A steep switchback road led us up out of the caldera and back onto the road to Ubud. Dinner that night was at a funky little restaurant on Monkey Forest Road called De’Warung. We ordered a Balinese feast (literally) and washed it down with some amazing lemongrass mojitos (why has no one else thought of this?) as we watched the tourists go by.

ubud bali

ubud bali

ubud bali

Bali’s eastern beaches are lovely, but its central interior is TRULY spectacular. A visit to the Tegalalang rice terraces and Mount Batur are a must on any Bali road trip itinerary!

And in case you missed it, be sure to check out my blog on Ubud Horse Stables, too – definitely the best way to explore Bali’s lush interior.

Next up on our road trip…two of Bali’s most beautiful (and hidden!) beaches.

Horse Riding in Bali: Temples and Rice Terraces

Horse Riding in Bali: Temples and Rice Terraces

I don’t often wake up before my alarm. I’m not what you’d call a “morning person.” However, there are exceptions.

And one of those is when I’m about to go horse riding in Bali.

I awoke at 6am on the outskirts of Ubud at the charming Kamandhani Hostel. (A little gem of a place, tucked at the end of a very quiet street but only a few minutes’ walk from the liveliness of Ubud.)

ubud bali

ubud bali

A few cups of insanely delicious Balinese tea later, and I was ready to go when my driver arrived. We cruised north through Ubud and out into the endless green of Bali’s interior.

Where does one go for the best horse riding in Bali? I’d done my research ahead of time and decided on the 3-hour advanced ride at Ubud Horse Stables. This establishment has received stellar reviews, and rightfully so. No skinny, neglected Asian horses here. Their herd of imported Thoroughbreds and Appaloosas are beautifully cared for and professionally trained. The level of care, riding, and service are comparable to any reputable stables in the western world.

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

Upon my arrival, I met Duke, Raja, and Cola (the black, white, and chestnut horses, respectively). All were beautifully groomed and had lovely dispositions. After signing the appropriate forms and discussing my riding history, I was paired up with Cola for the day.

ubud horse riding bali

My only regret of the day is that it wasn’t sunnier. But hey, it could have been pouring rain, and that would’ve been worse! Despite the overcast and the stickiness of the morning, spirits were high as I set out with a French woman named Mathilde and our Balinese guide. We also had a photographer following us on his motorbike!

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

What’s horse riding in Bali like? It’s AWESOME. The trail wound through a local village and out into the rice terraces. All the greenery and water reminded me a lot of Florida, where I grew up and learned to ride. Once we were used to our horses and the landscape, it was time to open up and let manes fly.

horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

A word of warning to those dreaming of galloping through rice fields: When they say “advanced ride,” they MEAN it. We hauled butt down these trails and up several very steep hills. If you’re not extremely comfortable in the saddle at all speeds and terrains, better stick with the beginner or intermediate rides!

For me, it was heaven. Cola behaved wonderfully all day, whether we were blazing along or enjoying a stroll through the flooded fields.

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali
Riding selfies are hard!!

Our ride included a mid-morning stop at a local warung (restaurant) for breakfast and tea. After a few more gallops we stopped at an orange grove to rest the horses and enjoy some local produce.

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

bali children

My awesome day of horse riding in Bali was winding to a close. We gave our hard-working horses a nice long rein as we walked through the village back to the stables.

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

Having had the privilege to do a lot of cool rides around the world, I have to say that my experience at Ubud Horse Stables was one of the best! The staff was experienced, friendly, and spoke excellent English. Most importantly, the horses were well cared for and well-trained (always a concern in a foreign land). And we got to ride at all paces, which is always a bonus for advanced riders!

After bidding farewell to Cola, I returned to Ubud and enjoyed a much-needed massage at the fabulous Spa Bali Ubud. Then it was time to meet up with hubby for some happy hour cocktails at Mingle Cafe & Bar.

spa bali ubud massage

mingle ubud

My day of horse riding in Bali was awesome, but it was time to get back on the road. Stay tuned for our next adventure!

Bali Road Trip: North Coast to Central Highlands

Bali Road Trip: North Coast to Central Highlands

The gentle sound of lapping waves stirs you awake. Warm sunlight pours through the balcony doors, illuminating the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The scent of salt and blooming frangipani drift in through the windows. And right in your backyard, the towering peak of a still-active volcano casts a long shadow.

Welcome to Amed Beach, Bali.

beten waru amed bali

This beautiful little beach town is truly one of Bali’s hidden gems. Set way off the beaten tourist trail, it will take you several hours to get there from the southern cities of Kuta and Denpasar. If you want to take the scenic route, turn off at Amlapura and drive the narrow, winding coastal road. If that’s too daunting, you can take the main road north through Tirta Gangga.

Either way, you’re on your way to a true island paradise.

amed beach bali

amed beach bali

We awoke to the opening scene at the lovely Beten Waru Bungalow. After a hearty breakfast of banana pancakes and Balinese tea (seriously…my favorite tea EVER), we rented snorkeling gear, hopped in our rental car, and backtracked a few miles to Amed’s Japanese shipwreck.

amed bali

amed beach bali

Scuba diving is one of the main draws to this side of Bali. But even if you aren’t certified (we’re not), there’s an incredible site to explore just a few feet offshore. The Japanese wreck is about 65feet (20m) long and lies at a depth of 10-30 feet (3-10m). Apparently, this was a Japanese patrol boat which sank during the island’s occupation in World War II.

It’s covered with countless soft corals and a huge variety of fish. The sea floor is sometimes sandy, in other places covered with black coral, sponges, and gorgonian sea fans. Besides the typical varieties of tropical fish, you might also spot scorpion fish, ghost pipefish, seahorses, white-tip reef sharks, or sea turtles!

The wreck is easily accessible from the beach. Look for the parking lot and sign between Baliku Dive Resort and Eka Purnama Cottages. You can also access the beach from Kawi Karma Beach Cottages. Head down the steps onto the tree-lined coast, where you’ll find divers and snorkelers getting ready to wade into the water.

amed bali

amed beach bali

(Tip: GO EARLY! We arrived around 9am and had the wreck to ourselves for about 20 minutes. By the time we headed back to shore around 9:30, there were dozens of divers arriving.)

The wreck did not disappoint. The water was clear and fairly warm (I’m a Floridian, so take my temperature gauge with a grain of salt). It’s an easy swim from shore, no more than 50 feet (15m) to the first part of the wreck, and plenty of coral and fish to see on the way!

japanese shipwreck amed bali

The best part? Aside from 10,000 rupiah (75 cents) to park your car, snorkeling this beautiful wreck is absolutely free!

We enjoyed a yummy brunch of nasi campur on the beach, settling in to watch the divers head out to the wreck. Then we headed back to our bungalow, soaked up a little more sun, and reluctantly bid farewell to Amed. There was still so much more of Bali to see!

nasi campur bali
Nasi campur – a delicious blend of Indonesian flavors.

amed beach bali

I’d love to tell you that the 3-hour drive from Amed to the far northern shore around Lovina Beach is a scenic wonder. But compared to the mountain road between Amlapura and Amed, it was kinda boring. The one cool sight was the peak of Mount Batur, partially obscured by passing clouds.

bali road trip

bali road trip

bali road trip

We passed through Singaraja and Lovina on the north central coast. Again, not much of note. After a relaxing evening at Lovina Beach (including Balinese massages in a beachside bungalow), we awoke early and continued our scenic road trip.

lovina beach bali

bali massage

Turning south from the coast towards the central highlands, we climbed steadily towards the hilltop towns of Gobleg and Munduk. Both towns sit around 2,000 feet (600m) in elevation and offer 360 views of Bali’s majesty. Distant volcano peaks, vibrant green rice terraces, towering palms and banana trees – it’s a dizzying palette of color.

bali road trip

bali

bali

bali

We regretted only passing through this stunning area. I actually felt quite jealous when we passed a few tourists with day bags, on their way to a nearby trailhead. On our next trip to Bali, we’ll definitely set aside a few nights to explore the surrounding area, which features scenic hikes to hidden waterfalls.

lake danau timblangan bali

lake danau buyan bali

As we descended towards the twin lakes of Danau Tamblingan and Danau Buyan, we passed a roadside viewpoint. Not only was it an awesome photo of the lakes and mountains, but we got to meet some of the local wildlife. One species, in particular. While Jeremy kept a very safe distance, I stepped right up to meet Petrie the Giant Fruit Bat.

giant fruit bat bali

Okay, I don’t actually know what his name is. But he reminded me of Petrie from The Land Before Time (the pterodactyl), so that’s what I called him. Petrie was friendly, calm, very much alive, and HUGE – easily 4 or 5 pounds!!

giant fruit bat bali

We said goodbye to Petrie and continued down to the lakefront, stopping briefly at the abandoned Pura Ulun Danu Buyan temple.

pura ulun danu buyan temple bali

pura ulun danu buyan temple bali

Then we drove the short distance into Bedugul and the much more popular Danau Bratan (Water Temple). This beautiful Shaivite temple dates all the way back to 1633!

water temple bali

water temple bali

It continues to be used for ceremonies and offerings to the water goddess Dewi Danu. And at almost 4,000 feet (1200m) above sea level, Bedugul enjoys a cooler climate than the lowlands.

water temple bali

water temple bedugul bali lake

water temple bali

(Side note for ladies and gents: If you show up at a temple in Bali wearing shorts or a short skirt, you’ll be given a sarong to wear for modesty.)

After jostling through the crowds for the best photo ops, we continued south on the main highway out of Bedugul. Our plan was to drive straight to Ubud, but we couldn’t resist another roadside stop along the way. “Pure luwak coffee” jumped out at us in big bold letters – and like any good foodies, we couldn’t pass it up!

coffee bali

We received a little tour of the roadside coffee plantation, where we saw coffee beans at all stages of processing. Then we took a seat and prepared to sample their many specialty teas and coffees – including kopi luwak.

And what is kopi luwak, you may ask?

To start, I’ll tell you what a luwak is. It’s a catlike creature (similar to a mongoose) that lives in Southeast Asia. What does this have to do with coffee? Well, luwaks are particularly fond of coffee beans. In fact, they eat them all the time.

And somewhere along the way, someone decided it would be a great idea to pluck the undigested coffee beans from the luwak’s excrement and make coffee out of it.

Yes. Kopi luwak is, in fact, made from coffee beans that have passed through an animal’s digestive tract.

Before you start gagging, let me assure you that this is no tourist gimmick. Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee on earth, selling for hundreds of dollars per pound. Why would anyone pay that much for coffee made from – well, cat poop?

Because it’s delicious.

Let me add that I actually hate coffee. Won’t touch the stuff. It’s way too bitter for my taste. But kopi luwak doesn’t have that bitter taste. It reminded me more of roasted nuts. It was smooth, nutty, and utterly delicious. I totally understand the price tag now. (Although in Bali, you can sample a roadside cup for just a few dollars.)

The plantation also offered coconut coffee (like drinking a Mounds bar), and a dozen varieties of tea. Sufficiently hyped up on all the caffeine, we got back in the car and continued on to Ubud.

What adventures awaited us in Ubud? Stay tuned to find out!

Bali Road Trip: Kuta to Amed Beach

Bali Road Trip: Kuta to Amed Beach

Ah, Bali. The famed island paradise. The stuff postcards and honeymoons are made of.

If you’re planning a visit to Bali, you’re not alone. 2016 saw a record 4.4 million foreigners descend on the tiny Indonesian island!

bali
Bali from the air.

So where can you go to escape the masses? If you’re feeling adventurous, why not explore one of Bali’s less-traveled routes – the coastal road from Kuta to Amed Beach.

Arriving in Kuta

Bali Tip #1: SKIP KUTA. (Note: This does not apply to South Kuta or Nusa Dua, which we’ll get to later).

Unless you’re an aspiring surfer or you want to party all night with thousands of drunk Aussies, there is absolutely zero reason to go to Kuta.

There. I said it. (In case no one else did.)

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place. There are lots of cheap little restaurants (warungs) where you can get delicious Indonesian food. As soon as we checked into our guesthouse, we headed for the closest one and had a phenomenal meal for less than $3US.

warung bali kuta
Sampling Indonesian specialties at a warung in Kuta.

I’ll write a separate post about the food in Bali, but for now, suffice to say it’s superb. Thanks to its strategic location along the trade routes between China and India (and 350 years of Dutch rule), the Indonesian food has claimed the best flavors from around the globe and combined them in ways that are truly magical.

Our intro to this wonderful world of flavors consisted of nasi campur (mixed meat and vegetable dishes with rice and plenty of spicy sambal chili) and ayam pedas (chicken and fragrant rice steamed in banana leaf). No joke – each dish cost about $1. And they were insanely delicious.

But wait, aren’t I supposed to be talking you out of Kuta?

Yes, for the aforementioned reasons (#1: You’re a surfer. #2: You like drunk Australians. Or #3: You’re a drunk Australian surfer). That’s pretty much all you’re going to find in Kuta. So if this describes you, you’ll be right at home. If not, you’ll be bored and annoyed in about 20 minutes.

Sadly, Kuta is the beginning and the end of most people’s visit to Bali. All they see of this incredible island is a mediocre (dirty) beach, shady massage parlors, rundown nightclubs, and endless touts selling cheap souvenirs. Add in maniacal motorbike drivers and terrible traffic jams, and you’ll quickly be wondering where all those idyllic rice fields are.

Hint: They’re not in Kuta.

Kuta bali
Kuta’s narrow, congested streets (yes, that IS a two-lane road).

kuta beach bali
Kuta Beach. Nothing to get excited about.

If you want to party in Kuta, by all means…do so. Get your drink on, practice your fake (or real) Aussie accent…and then GET OUT to see the rest of Bali. The real Bali.

Bali Road Trip 101

This may seem like a strange piece of advice in an article about road-tripping, but here it is: Unless you’re already very experienced in driving in congested third-world countries (on the left), I DO NOT recommend attempting to drive here.

Repeat: DO NOT attempt to drive in Bali unless you already have experience driving someplace like Vietnam, the Philippines, or Malaysia. The roads in Bali are more like…bicycle paths. With an endless flow of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes competing for space that doesn’t exist.

Or, if you do manage to get out of the city, you enter miles and miles of hairpin turns with no lane markings, no guard rails, and no one to save you when you go careening over a cliff. (Okay, maybe that was a tad dramatic.)

bali
Typical road in rural Bali.

Still, the warning needs to be given. Travel agencies are eager to rent you cars (or, God forbid, motorbikes) for your “relaxing, fun-filled holiday” in Bali. Let me be the first to say that driving here is ANYTHING but relaxing and fun-filled.

Is it impossible? No. Obviously, people (like us) manage to do it – although we’ve lived and driven in Asia for two years so we’re kind of used to it. If you do decide to rent a car (only rent a motorcycle if you have a death wish), then please be prepared for the most exhausting, intensive driving you’ve ever done.

If this is all sounding a little intimidating, don’t despair. You can still have an amazing road trip by hiring a driver who’s used to the chaos. There are also plenty of buses and shuttle companies that will haul you to the most popular parts of the island.

Okay. Lecture done. Onto the adventure.

First Stop: Candidasa

Let’s assume you’ve hired a driver or have mentally prepared yourself to drive in Bali. Leaving the chaos of Kuta behind, you’ll drive through an unremarkable stretch along Sanur and Bali’s southwest coast. The only real place of note here is the Safari Park (if that’s your kinda thing).

If not, drive straight on to the delightful seaside village of Candidasa.

bali
Enjoying the sunshine in Candidasa.

candidasa bali
Obligatory tourist shot.

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The beach at Candidasa.

bali boat
Balinese fishing boat.

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Idyllic Candidasa, Bali.

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Seaside pavilion in Candidasa.

Once you’ve dipped your toes in the water and marveled at the volcanic rocks along the shore, hop back in your car to continue your Bali road trip.

Next Stop: Ujung Water Palace

If you’re following Google Maps to Amed, it will lead you inland through Tirta Gangga along the main road to Kubu. Since your goal is to explore Bali “off the beaten path,” ignore Google. Instead, when you reach the town of Amlapura, follow the signs south to the seaside Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.
Entrance to Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.
Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.
Ujung Water Palace from above.

We stumbled upon this place by accident, having never even heard of it. As it turns out, the complex dates back to Bali’s Dutch colonial days and was built between 1909 and 1921. Once a playground for Balinese royalty, these days it serves as a beautiful park for locals and tourists alike to enjoy.

Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.

Ujung Water Palace.

Bali Road Trip: The Scenic Route From Amlapura to Amed Beach

Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff!

Once you leave the Water Palace and start heading north, your Bali road trip really kicks into high gear! The road begins twisting and turning its way up the twin peaks of Gunung Seraya and Gunung Lempuyang, both reaching about 3500 feet/1050 m in elevation.

What does this mean for you? Aside from the sensation that you’re driving along a jungle go-kart track, each new hairpin turn offers a new breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean.

amed bali
The road to Amed.

For an hour or two (depending on how fast you dare to drive), you’ll wind through lush forest, tiny villages, and roadside markets. Chances are you’ll be the only vehicle on the road – this is definitely the path less traveled! If you’re looking to carve out your own little private chunk of Bali, this is the place to do it.

amed bali

amed bali

amed bali
Fishing boats lining a black-sand beach.

As a small aside, the east coast of Bali is renowned for its “black sand” beaches. We didn’t find too many sand beaches (black or otherwise) – instead, these beaches are actually composed of smooth, black volcanic stones. Awesome.

amed beach bali
Black, red, and gray stone beaches of Bali’s east coast.

At last you arrive in the seaside village of Amed, where you really feel like you have the place to yourself. We chose to stay in the Beten Waru Bungalows. With an incredible view of the pool, frangipani trees, and a huge balcony that opened up over the ocean, it was awesome!

amed bali
Beten Waru Bungalows, Amed

amed

beten waru amed bali

beten waru amed bali

With the remaining daylight, walk the short distance to Waeni’s Sunset View Bar & Restaurant. Do not go anywhere else in Amed for the sunset, or else you’ll miss this:

sunset amed beach beali

Order a cocktail, sink into a bean bag chair, and watch the sun sink behind Bali’s largest volcano, Mount Agung. Not a bad way to end Day One of your Bali road trip!

Dusk at Waeni’s Sunset View Bar.

Welcome to Bali.

What’s next on your Bali road trip? Click here for Days 2 and 3!

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

Remember the time we illegally crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border…TWICE?

Oh, wait. That was today.

Since there’s already plenty of (boring) advice floating around about how to make visa runs from Bangkok to a neighboring country, let me share with you a humorous story of how NOT to do it.

kanchanaburi river kwai bridge thailand

Why visa runs?

Any foreigner who’s spent any time in Thailand knows the aggravation of visa runs. Truthfully, they’re the bane of our existence. While having a built-in vacation every 2-3 months SOUNDS wonderful, the reality is that they can be very expensive or stressful – or both.

But alas, it’s the price you pay to live in “paradise.” Every 60-90 days, you dutifully jump out of the country to get a fresh stamp in your passport and come back in for your next go-round. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them!

At least, I usually do, when I know about them. You see, Thai immigration laws change about as often as Taylor Swift’s boyfriends. Every other month, it seems like there’s some new rule or regulation to follow (translation = new way to get money from foreigners).

When we went to file our 30-day extensions yesterday (the only way to turn a 60-day stay into a 90-day stay), we were informed that because we hadn’t “registered” our address via our landlord, we would have to pay fines before we could get our extensions.

Like, several hundred DOLLARS in fines.

I love Thailand and everything, but I wasn’t too keen on paying through the nose just to get another 28 days in the country (since we already have our real visa run booked in late June). So we had three options: 1) Pay the fines, 2) Hop a quick flight to Malaysia, or 3), Drive out to the Myanmar border and do a land crossing.

Judging by the title of this post, you can probably guess we went with Option #3. Sounds easy enough, right? Hop in a car, drive out to the border, get a few stamps in the passport, and we’re good to go.

Not so fast, amigos. Not so fast.

Journey to Kanchanaburi

The day began innocently enough. Our South African friend Dee jumped at the opportunity to get out of Bangkok for the day and graciously offered to drive us the 120 or so miles to the border.

So we hop in his car around 6:30 am and begin the 4-hour drive out the Myanmar border, through lots of lush green farmland, palm trees, and banana trees. As we neared the border, the terrain grew increasingly hilly, with dramatic green karst cliffs pushing out of the earth.

Around 10:30, we begin nearing a series of checkpoints leading up to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Ban Phu Nam Ron. Security is lax at best – in one town, the soldiers were joining in with a passing street parade – so it was smooth sailing all the way until we lost reception on our cell phones.

In retrospect, that should have been our first clue.

Crossing the border at Ban Phu Nam Ron

Driving along past several makeshift security posts (translation = bored Thai policemen playing on their cell phones while traffic goes by), we reached a point where a pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road. After waiting for several minutes, the cars behind us started to go around the truck and keep going.

Deciding to follow suit, we also pulled around the parked (and empty, we discovered) pickup truck and continued on our way. A moment later we hit a slightly more official-looking roadblock. Dee waits in the car (since he’s not making the crossing) while Jeremy and I get out to ask the officers in the bamboo hut about exit formalities.

As you can imagine, not much English is spoken, and our Thai is definitely not advanced enough to be asking questions about immigration. The officers looked at our passports and then waved us onward, so onward we went. The same thing happened at the next checkpoint down the road, and the next, where the road suddenly turned from smooth pavement to bumpy red clay.

Faithfully we stop at every checkpoint and show our passports, and every time we’re waved further onward. At last, we spot a dilapidated building with the word “IMMIGRATION” written on a wooden sign. We’d made it!

So Dee parks the car and waits while Jeremy and I head inside to get our exit stamps out of Thailand. The immigration “office” is basically a dusty wooden shed with a makeshift desk, two bored-looking officers, and four sleeping dogs. With smiles on our faces (this has been the easiest visa run EVER!), we hand over our passports to officer #1.

“Exit stamp?” he asks.

Our smiles fade. “We get stamp here,” we reply.

The language barrier limits understanding for both parties. “Thailand stamp?” he tries again.

Jeremy and I are thoroughly confused at this point. “We get stamp here?” we repeat, but this time it’s a question.

Officer #2 comes in at this point, and they spend the next 10 minutes pouring through our passports for exit stamps that don’t exist. It’s at this point we finally realize:

We have crossed into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

We are almost THREE MILES into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

(Let me stress that Myanmar is not like Thailand. Until about 10 years ago, it was a socialist country completely cut off from the outside world. The Burmese experienced decades of oppression and harsh rule under a military regime. Even now, Myanmar is light years behind the rest of Asia).

And we’ve just unwittingly entered it…ILLEGALLY.

This is a big enough problem for Jeremy and I, as American citizens. But for our South African friend Dee (whose passport hasn’t been checked once during this whole process), it presents a whole new problem.

South Africans are NOT eligible for visas on arrival in Myanmar like Americans are. So not only is Dee illegally across the border, but he’s not even ALLOWED to receive a visa to be there!

There and Back Again

Fortunately, the immigration officers were in a fabulous mood today. Rather than throwing us all in Burmese prison, he returned our passports and instructed us to drive back to Thailand to get our exit stamps. (And then return to Myanmar.)

And at which of the 27 checkpoints were we supposed to do this? That part, of course, got lost in translation.

So we began the bumpy journey back through all those lovely checkpoints, half laughing at and half terrified by our current predicament. Jeremy and I hop out again at – checkpoint #3, maybe? – and use Google translate to try to get our point across.

Again, communication is limited. But we manage to understand that we need to keep going until we reach (something?) that looks like an official building.

So back we go, until the dirt road turns to pavement again. We pass through another checkpoint before we FINALLY see a little blue building with a thatched roof that says “IMMIGRATION” on it. To our surprise, there’s now a queue of cars leading up to the building, and the road is now blocked by a gigantic red and white striped gate.

Where the heck was THAT when we drove through earlier?

So yes…we had unknowingly driven right past the border patrol, right past the immigration office, and almost three miles into another country. AND NOBODY NOTICED.

Crossing Ban Phu Nam Ron Border – Take Two!

Now that Dee (and his car) were safely back on Thai soil, he wisely decided to park and let us sort ourselves out. Jeremy and I walk over to the immigration office and fill out the appropriate paperwork before we’re herded onto a “shuttle” (translation = pickup truck) to take us across the border.

We’re crammed into the truck with 3 young women and the surly old driver. It doesn’t take us long to realize that everyone on both sides of the border has heard our story by now.

At every checkpoint along the way, the soldiers all laugh and wave at us, like we’re visiting celebrities. Our fellow passengers are snickering with the driver and *secretly* taking photos of us (as if we wouldn’t notice). Once we receive our much-awaited Myanmar entry and exit stamps, even we’re starting to laugh.

We’re about to make our 4th trip across the border in under an hour…and only the 2nd legal crossing!

At last, we arrive back at the Thai immigration office, where we’re stamped in for another 60 days (in this case, 28 days, since we’re already booked to go to Bali at the end of June). And then we do what any relieved persons would do in this instance – celebrate with cold, frothy, heavenly cups of Thai iced tea.

After all, you know what they say: Any day you DON’T end up in Burmese prison is a good day!

Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai

Astonishingly, it’s not even NOON. We’ve driven 4 hours from Bangkok and crossed the border a record 4 times…before noon.

Dang, we’re good.

Dee has been loyally waiting for us in the small parking lot near the immigration office. Famished and relieved, we backtrack an hour to the city of Kanchanaburi. After a quick lunch on the river, we set off to tour the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

In case you missed the old movie with Alec Guinness, this bridge was built during World War II and is part of what’s known as “The Death Railway.” An estimated 9,000 laborers lost their lives constructing the railway line that ran between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma).

After our visit to Kanchanaburi, we headed for Bangkok and arrived home around 6 pm – twelve hours after we left! Not only did we get an incredible story out of the ordeal, but the entire day cost us around $50. (Considering the fines and extensions would’ve cost us $230, I’d say we made out pretty well!)

In conclusion, dear friends, now you know how NOT to do a visa run across the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Please note: This travel tale is meant to entertain, and also shed some light on the realities of living abroad. I am in NO WAY suggesting that you ever attempt to cross this border (or any other border) illegally. The truth is that we are all very, VERY fortunate that there were no repercussions for our blunder!

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

Nepal’s Poon Hill Trek, Day 3: Ghorepani to Tadapani

When I first started researching the Poon Hill Trek, I read countless accounts of exhausted hikers waking up at 5am and climbing the “hill” (translation = a 10,000-foot peak that would be classified as a “very tall mountain” anywhere else) in the freezing cold to watch the sun rise.

“Dumb morning people,” I muttered to myself, knowing that I’d never be seen among those idiots who awoke that early and climbed an icy mountainside…in the dark.

I mean, what’s wrong with waiting until later in the day? It’s not like Poon Hill (or the Himalayas) are going anywhere. It’s not as if they won’t be there at midday or late afternoon.

Well, that’s kinda true…but also kinda not. You see, at this altitude, the mountains basically create their own weather. All those glorious photos you see of the bare snowcapped Himalayan peaks? I can almost guarantee that those pictures were taken before the hour of 9am. Because once that magical hour hits, the clouds start to form, obscuring the peaks for the remainder of the day.

Akash explained all of this to us on the trek up, so I already knew what I was going to be doing at 5am today.

I was going to wake up – freezing – and hike up an icy mountainside in the dark – freezing – just like all of those idiots I’d read about (and pitied, because I knew they were freezing).

And indeed, at the gloriously dark hour of 5am, Jeremy, Akash, and I set off from our guesthouse, armed with the flashlights from our trusty cell phones, and joined dozens of other bleary-eyed tourists in trudging up, up, up Poon Hill. From the village of Ghorepani (9,429 feet/2,874m), we had to climb an additional 1,000 feet to the hilltop – the highest point in the trek – which maxes out at 10,475 feet (3,210m).

I was already struggling with the altitude the day before. (Did I mention this is classified as the “easiest trek” in Nepal?) I really, really didn’t stand a chance of having an easy hike.

But I know now why mountain climbers feel so incredibly victorious when they reach the summit. For over an hour, I gasped, wheezed, sweated profusely, shivered, stopped a million times to catch my breath, nearly slipped on icy steps, wanted to scream, shout, burst into tears, and quit, almost turned around and gave up on several occasions…

And then – and THEN – two stone pillars and string of colorful prayer flags are there to greet you, assuring you that you did it. You made it to the top. With the last vestige of my energy and determination, I climbed the final step and set foot on the top of Poon Hill, just as the sky was growing pink and the perfectly clear, cloudless peaks became visible…and I suddenly understood.

I was standing on top of the world.

We limped over to the conveniently placed coffee shack (the only sign of civilization for miles around) and ordered three life-saving cups of masala tea, warming our frozen hands on the tin mugs while we awaited the sunrise. I met the tired eyes of other trekkers, and unspoken communication passed seamlessly between us: “I know…This totally sucks…I hate life right now too…It’s going to be alright…It’ll all be worth it…Right?”

A few minutes later we got our answer, in the form of a gloriously golden sunrise that lit up the peaks like a bonfire in the sky. Directly in front of us were some of the tallest mountains on the face of the earth: Dhaulagiri (26,817 feet/8177m), Annapurna (26,545 feet/8091m), Annapurna South (23,920 feet/7219m), and Machapuchare or “Fish Tail Peak” (22,956 feet/6991m).

I’m a writer, but I don’t have words to describe what it was like to stand there, on the rooftop of the world, and behold such a sight. Whatever it is that passes through your mind and heart at that moment – be it spiritual, religious, a sense of inner peace or personal enlightenment – there’s no way you can be unaffected by what you’re seeing.

And all of the sweat, tears, and effort it took to get to this point all magically melt away, like it never even happened.

Of course, you’re reminded of it pretty quickly when you turn around and start heading down the hill. The trek down was a breeze compared to the trek up, but our day was just getting started. Akash told us that we had the longest and highest day ahead of us – seven hours, at best, along the ridgeline…and we’d be hitting snow and ice along the way.

Since that was the case, we thought it best to enjoy a little levity (and more breathtaking views) on the way down.

So! After downing more amazing potato roasties for breakfast, we set off in the opposite direction from Poon Hill, climbing for a brutal hour to the top of Gurung Hill. The views were spectacular, although the clouds were rolling in to obscure the peaks (aren’t we glad we got up at 5am to see them?).

As we pressed onward, the sky grew grayer and the temperature dropped, promising fresh snow in the future.

Sure enough, right as we entered the village of Deurali, the skies opened up and big white snowflakes began swirling through the air. This just happened to coincide with the most treacherous part of our trek – the steep, narrow winding canyon between Deurali and Banthanti. We were informed, in fact, that the previous day an unfortunate Japanese man had just broken his leg in that canyon and had to be air-evacuated out!

Fortunately for us, we had Akash. And Akash had done his homework – he knew this area would be snowy and icy, so he’d told us ahead of time to buy crampons for the trek. So out come our shiny new crampons – basically metal spikes you affix to your shoes – and down we go.

Without the crampons, it would have been a terrifying and dangerous trek. The stone steps were covered in thick ice, the trail was frozen solid, and the bridges were a scary mix of snow and slush. With our trusty crampons, though, we traversed the frozen landscape without incident – although we definitely had to take it slower than planned.

We were so slow, in fact, that by the time we reached the village of Banthanti we realized that we weren’t going to reach our goal of Ghandruk before nightfall. But we were all safe and uninjured, so that was the most important thing, right?

The great thing about this trek is that you have plenty of options for food and accommodation. When I pictured hiking in the Himalayas, I pictured starkness and miles and miles of empty nothingness. Higher up, I’m sure it’s like that. But “down” where we were (hard to imagine that 10,000 feet is considered “low”), guesthouses and teahouses abound, so you’re not forced to stick to a tight schedule. You can simply go at your own pace – or the pace Mother Nature forces you to go at!

After a solid 9 hours of trekking (including our early climb up Poon Hill) we reached the beautiful village of Tadapani, nestled below the impressive peak of Machapuchare (elevation 22,942 feet/6993m).

(Fun side note: Machapuchare, also called “Fish Tail Peak,” is a sacred mountain in Nepal, said to be home to the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is one of very few places on earth where no man has ever set foot. A British expedition set out to climb the mountain in 1957 and – at the request of the Nepalese King – stopped 150 feet short of the summit.)

Dead to the world, we dragged our weary bodies into the common room (with a wood-burning stove – THANK GOD) and basically collapsed there through a late lunch, early dinner, and painfully slow WiFi. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I still can’t believe it’s possible to GET WiFi up there!)

It was an epic day – a day I’ll remember forever – but I won’t lie…it was TOUGH.

And we still have one more day to go…