A Travellerspoint blog

Friday Photo - Elephant Love

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Navaan is one of the newest baby elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, and he is very inquisitive. Only 6 months old, he already weighs close to a half a ton. We got to spend some quality time with him (and his mom Sri Prae) while they were hanging out in the shade. Navaan was very interested in our shoes (especially Alex's sandals with velcro straps), and my hat.

This picture shows Navaan attempting to steal the hat off of Noah's head - almost successfully!

Posted by noahv 17:39 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Welcome to the Elephant Nature Park

Day 1


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We were up early to meet up with the the rest of the volunteers at the local Chiang Mai offices of Elephant Nature Park. While there, we met Lek Chailert - the founder, leader, and motivating force for the park. She may be small (that’s what “Lek” means in Thai), but she has an amazing power. After we filled out our volunteer forms, Lek showed us some of the birds that she rescued in a recent Chiang Mai storm. One had two broken legs, and Lek was exercising the bird’s wings while the legs healed. She has an amazing drive to help - a very inspirational person.
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Lek and one of her bird friends

We left Chiang Mai around 9:30, and drove the 50km north to the Elephant Nature Park. On the way, we watched a documentary about the work that Lek is doing at the park.
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Although we saw our first Asian elephants on the way, they were ones being used to do tourist rides. Knowing that we were heading to an elephant sanctuary where these types of elephants (as well as ones used in the logging industry) are being given a chance to recuperate and live a “normal” life made us a little sad for those being forced to work, but excited for our upcoming experience.

Pulling into the park was an amazing experience. Our first view of the park was from the top of the pass heading into the valley, and we could see the herd grazing on the banks of the river.
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Once inside the park, we passed the dog sanctuary (home to over 400 dogs - many rescued from the floods in Bangkok a couple of years ago), and headed to “The Platform”. The raised platform is home to the kitchens (both the “human kitchen” and the “ele-kitchen”), as well as our meeting and dining areas. Around the outside of the platform is a a metal railing that serves as the pull-up feed bar for the elephants. Our first order of business was to help feed a couple of the elephants their lunch - a totally amazing experience to be that close!
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After lunch, we got a tour of the facilities, and were assigned rooms and volunteer groups. There are 50 of us here for this week, with about a quarter of those staying for next week (we are part of those).
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Our volunteer groups and schedule for the week - all subject to change, of course

We then all met for an orientation session with Lek, where she gave us a brief history of the park, an overview of the work that they do here, and a pep talk for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, Lek is heading to Cambodia tomorrow for other elephant business, but she’ll be back here for next week. We are all looking forward to learning more from her.
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Our volunteer group

We all enjoyed our first opportunity to get wet with the elephants - standing in the river hurling buckets of water at these giants was an extremely fun experience, and we all got very wet!
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We even saw one of the babies (a boy named Navaan), but his mom and nanny elephants were not in the mood to let us help bathe her! We watched from the bridge while they got a bath and then a snack.
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Our volunteer group all got together for a group blessing from the shaman and elders from the local village, and given our “good luck” bracelets in the ceremony.
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Then dinner - a great selection of food, but (surprise!) all vegetarian fare. Alex and Leah are both dealing with the menu quite well…
Now off to bed before our first full day of work, starting at 7am tomorrow morning. We’re looking forward to more elephant time, as well as more time with the dogs and cats - they are all over the place! This is truly an animal lover’s dream…
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Leah

Today at the Elephant Nature Park, we got to learn the ways of the Elephants. First off, we arrived, then our guide showed us around, and then…we got to feel Elephants! Yay! Then we ate lunch then got to our rooms. In the afternoon, we went to the river and gave the Elephants a bath! That was super fun! Tomorrow, I hope it will be as magical as today.

Anne

Today I was filled with excitement and that first day of sleep away camp nervous energy - Did we bring the right gear? Will the people be cool? How will the kids react to the elephants? What will the food be like? Turns out being a resident volunteer IS like summer camp! Our first day was filled with introductions, orientations, the official reading of rules and even a blessing ceremony by the local shaman. We have been divided into work teams effective tomorrow and I’m confident that our life here will fall into familiar patterns soon. One of the gifts I had not anticipated is the other animals here. There are hundreds of cats and dogs who make themselves quite at home. We have a dog sleeping on our balcony and there is something so normal and wonderful about being greeted when we return “home” to our room.
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Alex

Today was epic. I touched my first elephant, and I was so happy! We woke up at 8am to go to the Elephant Nature Park. We were picked up at 8 in the morning and got to the park at around 10am. We were shown the entrance to the park and the entrance to the dog park. Then we were shown the mess place where the elephant food gets delivered. It was a TON of food!
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Then we were taken to the mess hall, and that was immediately followed by feeding the elephants. It was so awesome - I will never forget the first time I fed an elephant. After a tour of the park, we had lunch. After lunch we had a volunteer orientation - it was boring but I did learn a lot. At 4pm we all went down to the river to wash the elephants. We all got soaked! It was a lot of fun!

Posted by noahv 07:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand elephants elephant_nature_park Comments (6)

Caving in Vietnam

An amazing adventure underground


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Before we went to Vietnam, we were talking with a friend about things to do and places to go. He gave us two great suggestions - spend more time than we had planned in Hoi An, and explore the caves north of Huế. Advice number one was a winner, so we quickly looked to investigate advice number two.

North-central Vietnam has some of the largest and longest caves in this part of the world. In fact, near to the caves that we visited (Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave) is the newly discovered Son Doong Cave, now listed as the world's largest. Unfortunately for us, the Son Doong Cave isn't open to the public until next month, and even then, will cost a lot more to explore than we're comfortable paying.

What we experienced was the best caving adventure of our lives.

Although we could have done this as a day trip out of Hue, we decided to take the train up to Dong Hoi and use that as our base. Since we were already heading north to Hanoi, this made sense, as it would shave a couple of hours off of our overnight train journey the next day.

We made reservations at the Nam Long Hotel, which turned out to be reasonably nice - they had a family room that we took, with one large bed and two bunks for the kids. Since we got there early evening, and had an early departure to the caves the next day, we didn't get a lot of chance to explore the town.

Although we already had made arrangements while in Hoi An for a guide and driver to take us from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, the hotel has a good array of tour services available for the caves - everything from full-on tour services down to just hiring a driver or renting a motorbike to go yourself (I would recommend a driver though - it's not that easy to find, and driving yourself in Vietnam is taking your life in your hands...) Note: if you want to go for the more adventurous cave exploration of Paradise Cave (where you go 3.5km into the caves instead of the normal 1.5km), you might want to look at booking this through the Phong Nha Farmstay - they have the ability to book the longer tour. We all agree that next time, we will do this one!

When we got to Paradise Cave, we paid our entrance fee (140,000VND per person, about $6.70). We were told that kids under 12 were half price, but apparently they have since moved to a "pay-by-height" model, where anyone over 130cm pays full price. Although Alex and Leah both tried to shrink, they ended up being charged as adults...

We then started a 1.5km walk to the entrance of the cave (although we could have sprung another 200,000VND for a "buggie" to drive us there - but the walk was nice). The last section to the cave (that everyone needs to walk) is 524 stairs up the hill - good way to work up a sweat!
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Once at the top, we took a breather and had a bit of water while we looked at the map:
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The yellow highlight shows where we went in, and how far we were able to go.

Walking down into the cave was a magical experience. You can feel it getting cooler (and of course, much darker), and then, when your eyes start to get used to the light, you realize that THIS PLACE IS HUGE! We had been in caves on Easter Island and in New Zealand, but this was the largest cave than any of us had experienced.

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Here's a view from inside of the cave, looking back at the stairs coming down from the entrance

It's very easy to get around inside the cave - you're walking on a well-maintained wooden walkway, and there are lights all over illuminating the cave. Some people on teh internets said that they didn't like the lights (too colorful), but we didn't find them distracting at all.

Here you can see the walkway through the caves - it went on and on...
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The rock formations (stalagtites from the top, and stalagmites from the bottom) were huge and varied. There were so many different types of formations, we just wandered around in awe.
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This one was supposed to look like an ancient Vietnamese house - I thought it was pretty cute:
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I also got a bit creative with the camera and the colors in the cave:
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Here's a few to get a sense of scale:
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Finally, we got to the end of the path, and had a chance to sit down and enjoy the silence (right before a large tour group came through!)
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On our way out, we had a good laugh about all of the warning signs around.
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Jeez, they don't let you have ANY fun!

After we left Paradise Cave, we went into to town to have lunch at a local restaurant. Well, it was a bit more like the front room of someone's house, where the mom made us a full 6-course meal including fried local fish, braised local pork, morning glory (a local vegetable), rice (of course), and even french fries for the kids.

Once we had a rest to digest from lunch, we piled back into the car to go visit Phong Nha Cave. This cave is over 44km long, although only the first 1.5km is open to the public. The visitor center is located pretty centrally in the town, and offers a couple of options for exploring. We opted to pay a bit extra to rent kayaks and adventure through the caves ourselves (vs. on a boat with a bunch of other tourists).

Here we are walking up to the entrance of the cave (that's it in the river):
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Once we got geared up with headlamps, helmets, and lifejackets, we got into our kayaks:
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The kayaks were pretty hard to keep going in a straight line, but once we got the hang of it, we managed not to bump into the walls of the cave (and even got a couple of pictures in the dark):
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It took us about an hour to paddle all the way to the end of the cave, where we had the chance to get out and clamber across rocks and ladders to the far chamber. We tried to take some pictures, but it was very humid in the cave (not the mention dark!) and that made for some interesting shots...
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We then paddled out, avoiding the other boats, with a quick stop to a cave tube that had been used by ancient Vietnamese as a home, as well as by the Vietnamese army during the war.
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Tube inside of Phong Nha Cave

When we reached the end of the trip, we were tired and sore and ready to go home. It was a wonderful day, and a great adventure. We're already talking about coming back to Vietnam to do some longer cave adventures!

NOTES:

  • Being in the caves is a wonderfully special and spiritual experience. This is all the better when it's quiet (since sound travels very well in the caves). We recommend getting to Paradise Cave early in the morning, before the tour busses come in. When we were there, although there was one other group in the cave, we could hear them pretty well (especially since the guide was using a mic and small speaker). As we were leaving, we saw many other groups coming in - we were glad to have had the quiet that we did).
  • Bring lots of water - it's easy to get dehydrated. And snacks for the kids (well, this pretty much is true all the time...)
  • Bring your sunscreen! You don't need it inside the caves, but both approaches are quite sunny.

Posted by noahv 21:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam cave paradise phong_nha Comments (1)

Escape to Bali


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Traveling with your family teaches you a lot. Spending 24x7 with your spouse and kids, sharing a single bedroom at times, dealing with the stress of getting to the airport or catching that bus, trying to come to a consensus on where to have dinner when you are all already hungry and crabby and the kids just want to eat McDonalds and you just want to eat ANYTHING BUT MCDONALDS -- these are the times that you grow closer as a family (since the alternative is to bludgeon everyone in sight, and that's been pointed out to me as illegal - even in the countries that we've been traveling through).

But sometimes, you just need to have a little quiet time and recharge your batteries.

What's the answer? PUT YOURSELF ON A TIMEOUT!

That's what Anne and I did after 7+ months on the road with the kids - we left them in Singapore with Auntie Helen, and escaped for 5 days to Bali. BY OURSELVES! NO KIDS! As you can imagine, we are forever in debt to Helen...

Helen actually helped us out even more - she found us a really cheap Groupon for a nice hotel in Seminyak. While I love a good deal, I'm always a little skeptical about Groupons. They seem to typically be from hotels that need to drive the extra business for some ulterior reason - like the pool being closed for maintenance, or a large construction site next door that generates enough noise and dust to make staying at the hotel painful. Luckily, we were unable to find much fault with our hotel (the Sunset Mansion Suites) - the room was clean, the bed was good, it was quiet, the pool was nice (although for future reference, using green and white tiles for the pool bottom gives the poor first impression that the water is filled with algae), and they brought us complimentary breakfast in our room every morning. Only downside was that it was at least a 15 minute walk to the beach, along a street system that does not have the concept of "pedestrian sidewalks" - but once you got used to sidestepping the big holes and open grates, and dodging scooters and cars on the road, it was easy to get around.

On our first morning, after we managed to roust ourselves from our luxe bed in our airconditioned room which was oh-so-quiet without our kids (okay, okay -- I'll stop),
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we did our usual "first day in a new place" activity, and wandered around until we got lost. Luckily, after nearly escaping a very persistant time-share-seminar-tout ("HELLO! You may have already won a new iPad, just come to this presentation - I swear it will only take a few minutes"), we found ourselves at the beach. Little did we know that this was the start of the Balinese New Year celebrations (aka, Nyepi).

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The cleansing of the sacred statues - day of Melasti

Sometimes getting lost is just what you need -it was wonderful to have stumbled across this ceremony with no prior knowledge (no, we had not planned on being in Bali for Nyepi)

After we hung around a bit longer, we wandered down the beach in search of something to eat. We had expected a bunch of local small places on the beach, but apparently that was not in the area that we were in. We ended up finding a place called Ku De Ta - although it was a bit more expensive than we would have normally gone for, since we were starving, we went for it. Great food and cold drinks - exactly what we needed!
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But tell us, are these people swimming in a really small pool, or in the fountain? We couldn't decide...
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After lunch we walked back to the hotel, had a swim and a nap, and planned our next day (which would be the last for us in Seminyak before we headed to Ubud). We decided that (although our anniversary was not until July) to combine our 2nd honeymoon / 15th anniversary into our AnniversaryMoon! We made our plans that night over dinner at a fantastic local restaurant (Warung Eny).

The next day - 4 hour honeymoon massage at the very nice (and affordable) Murano Spa, followed by dinner at a fancy beach-side restaurant.
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Our flower bath - after the full-body massage and before the foot massage / facial (you can guess who got what)

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Gado Gado - a traditional Balinese dish, and a damn good restaurant too

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Happy AnniversaryMoon!

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Oh, and we got a super sunset too - tough to beat.

The next day, we packed up and left Seminyak for Ubud. This was actually a day ahead of schedule, but since the next day was Nyepi, on which the Balinese spend a day of silence with no traveling, we needed to get to out of town. We're very glad we did, since the next place we stayed (Villa Agung Khalia in Ubud) was a place that we could have stayed for months!

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On the way to Ubud, we stopped to see traditional batik making - they use hot wax to protect the design before dyeing the fabric

When we got to our Villa, we were blown away with the location. Situated about 10 minutes by car from the center of Ubud, in the middle of the rice fields, the facility and staff were amazing. They had booked us into the Honeymoon Suite, and everything was perfect - probably nicer than our first honeymoon!

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Our lovely bed

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The view from our balcony

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Our private pool

It was all wonderful, and we recommend this place highly! It helps that the price was reasonable too.

That night, after a great dinner and a beer at our personal honeymoon table
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we headed into the local town for the Ogoh-Ogoh ceremony (the night before Nyepi). The parade consists of huge statues of demons that each town spends months creating, which are then paraded around the town and burned for cleansing purposes. It was great to see these in the light of day, and we loved being welcomed into the parade as we went around the town.
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Look out behind you Anne!

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The next day we stayed in our villa, quietly reading. Quite a nice way to celebrate New Years Day...

The day after (our last full day in Bali), we took a walk around the rice paddies after breakfast to see all of the ducks,
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and then got a lift into Ubud for some sightseeing and shopping and a great lunch at Warung Sopa.

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No, we didn't buy any of these, but they are very cool

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Traditional Ubud house entrance - check out that great statue of Ganesha in the courtyard

We headed back to our villa for one last dinner on the patio, listening to the sounds of the birds in the rice paddies, wishing we could stay for ever. I can see why Dan from TropicalMBA chooses to live in Bali. However, we were missing our kids (and figured that they were driving Helen crazy by then) so we headed to the airport the next day. It was a wonderful couple of days, which allowed us to have the time to reconnect as adults and partners and team-mates, and gave us the necessary recharge that we needed to continue to enjoy the challenges and adventures of traveling as a family.

Posted by noahv 20:31 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali nyepi Comments (3)

Halfway There

Where we are, and where we're going


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It's hard to believe that we're over half-way done with our epic year-long travel adventure. We spent so long conceptualizing, thinking about, and planning the trip that it was almost a bit of a surprise when we found ourselves actually on the road. After we got into our rhythm, we've been doing a pretty good job of traveling as a family. Keeping updated on the blog has been more of a challenge than we thought, but we've done a great job of really being in the moment.

We're currently working on a separate blog post about what we loved, learned, and were challenged by during the first 7 months of our travels. However, since there's so much to discuss and write about in that area, and it requires that we get the kids to sit down and actually think about it, that will have to be a separate blog post (although we already know some winners - like snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, trekking Torres del Paines in Patagonia, and visiting Machu Picchu in Perú are at the top of the list).

Our itinerary started to get fast and furious once we finished our month in Australia and flew to Singapore at the beginning of February. It's going to stay crazy for the next couple of months, until we get some stability when we reach Chiang Mai and volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (and, if you're so inclined, you can donate to our ENP fund here - it would mean a lot). After Chiang Mai we have broad strokes for our remaining itinerary (Shanghai, Chen Du, and Beijing in China, then Trans-Mongolia Railroad from Beijing across Mongolia and Russia to Moscow and St. Petersburg before flying back to the States).

Here's the map:

As you can see, we've been using Singapore as our hub. Although it's been great for flights (most carriers operate out of here, and have good hub fares), it's not a cheap place to live. It's worked great for us because we have family here - win/win being able to see Anne's sister and her family, and to be able to stay in a place that's free and has great wifi! Thanks Helen and Tom!

Stop 1: Myanmar (aka. Burma)

Our first destination in SEAsia was a "new" one to many US travelers - Myanmar/Burma. We spent a wonderful 8 days here in mid-February with Helen and her daughters, and we loved it. The people were extremely nice, the architecture of the pagodas and temples were breathtaking, and it was great to travel in a country that still feels un-tainted by tourism (although it's coming - get there now before the tour-busses take over...) We booked through a tour package ourselves, which is pretty much needed at this time, although not our usual style. Since the tourism infrastructure isn't well built out, visitors would be well served with a company that will help with visas, internal flights, drivers, and hotel bookings (this one is especially important, since many popular locations don't have enough hotel space for visitors). This trip will get its own post soon, but here are some of our favorite pictures from the trip.
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Stop 2: Phuket, Thailand

We flew back to Singapore for a few days, and then the four of us headed up to Phuket, Thailand, for some time on the beach. We had found a cheap flight via SkyScanner, and spent some time looking around for cheap accommodations. Unfortunately, even in Thailand, cheap <> good, and it took a while before we found something that was a good value match for our budget. We ended up in Kata Beach, which turned out to be a lot nicer (in our opinion) than neighboring Karon Beach, and a LOT nicer that Patong (which just seemed crazy). In retrospect, we wish that we had been able to get over to Koh Tao (highly recommended by most people we spoke with), but we had a great time in Kata Beach.

We zipped around on a scooter:
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We spent a day on a boat, visiting Phang Nga Bay, kayaking through caves and goofing around at James Bond Island (wait till we tell you about the drunk Russians!):
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We had our feet nibbled on by doctor fish (the most INCREDIBLE feeling!):
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And basically enjoyed a couple of days just relaxing at the beach:
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Stop 3: Bali

Now we're back in Singapore, and Anne and I are getting ready for a couple of days away, in Bali, BY OURSELVES! You could call it a second honeymoon, but after spending 24x7 with all four of us together over the course of the last 7 months, we're just happy to have some time alone. A big THANK YOU to Helen for hanging out with Alex and Leah while we're gone.

Stop 4: Borneo

After Bali, we have a couple of more days in Singapore, and then we leave for good. Next stop, Kuching Malaysia, where we will be taking a page from our friends Tracey and Colin and staying in a longhouse in the Sarawak jungle. We think this is going to be a lot of fun, but we'll probably be looking forward to that hot shower afterwards...

Stop 5: Penang Malaysia

From Kuching we fly to Penang Malaysia, where we will spend some time exploring the area, and finding some adventures on our way. Nothing too planned here yet, so we're hoping we'll find something cool.

Stops 6, 7, 8, 9...

After Penang, we fly up to Bangkok Thailand for a couple of days in the city, then hop over to Siem Reap Cambodia to meet up with Helen, Isobel, and Evie for a week exploring Angkor Wat and surroundings. We say goodbye to Helen the second week of April, and then fly to Hoi An Vietnam, where we will spend the rest of April working our way up the coast to Hanoi, with a quick visit to Luang Prabang Laos, where we will fly from to Chiang Mai at the beginning of May. Yeah, we just covered another three countries in that last paragraph - we're working out the details now...

So, it's going to be a busy couple of months upcoming. Hopefully we'll be able to continue to post to the blog, but more likely will only be able to grab a couple of minutes of wifi to upload status and a picture or two to our Facebook page. Head over there and "Like" that page if you haven't already - that will be the best way to get updates from the road!

And away we go...

Posted by noahv 09:01 Archived in Singapore Tagged travel update Comments (3)

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