A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: noahv

Deep Blue Mongolia

Tales from Two Weeks Trekking Mongolia

We spent two weeks trekking around Mongolia, and had an amazing time. In a country of just under 3 million people, of which almost half live in the capital of Ulan-Bator (aka "UB"), and (with the exception of Greenland) has the honor of being the largest country with the smallest population density, there are a lot of wide-open views. It was easy to see why Mongolia has the nickname of the "Land of the Blue Sky".


We took the Trans-Mongolian train (otherwise known as the K23), from Beijing to Ulan-Bator (30 hours), which was a great adventure, and probably deserves its own post. This train has only sleeper cars, a small dining car, and hot water. We passed the time reading, playing cards, chatting with fellow passengers, enjoying the scenery, and sleeping. Sunset was especially cool.

It was an interesting journey, but we were glad that we had changed our itinerary to spent more time exploring Mongolia, and less time on the train going all the way across Russia. That would have been a LOT of time on the train.


We had a day to get ready for our trip. We spent that day buying snacks at the "State Department Store", and trying to figure out a way to get the cash to pay the tour company (No, they wouldn't take a credit card, and No, they had forgotten to mention that when we confirmed our trip a week or so earlier). Of course, you can only take so much cash out of the ATM per day, but we managed to do a cash-out from our credit card to pay for it. Mongolian money only has denominations up to 20,000 Tugriks (about $13.82USD), we ended up with a huge stack of cash. It was a bit stressful to walk across town carrying a couple of thousand dollars to pay for the trip, but we got it done with no worries.

We had chosen to head down to the Gobi desert and Central Mongolia, since this had the most to see in the time that we had. Here's a quick map of where we went...

Of course, when booking a tour through a company (which we usually choose not to do, but sometimes have to), the written itinerary (theory) differs from what actually happens (reality). Here's the writeup from the tour company, along with our pictures and notes about how it really went.


We will start with a full day trip out to the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Ruins. A picturesque Mountain Baga Gazriin Chuluu is one of the most attractive areas of the Gobi desert. With at an elevation of 1.768m, it is located in the granite belt. The ruins of a small monastery are on the south east part of the mountain. The area has got many species of wild animals and birds, such as ibex, argali, vultures, hawks and eagles. At the ruins, there are some mineral water springs and trees a top the many beautiful rocky hills. On the way we will stop for a lunch at Zorgol Khairkhan Mountain, and then we will continue to drive to the first campsite of our trip. Once we get there, we will have free time to wander around the mountains and do some hiking. We will camp overnight in this area.

The van picked us up at 9 in the morning, and we loaded up our gear and met our guide/cook Enkhay and our driver Batra. Unfortunately, the picture we snapped only has Enkhay in the background; Batra will remain anonymous. Both turned out to be fantastic travel companions.

The van that was to be our ride for the next two weeks is a common variety around Mongolia. Originally from Russia, the UAZ-452 is pretty comfortable to ride in, and can pretty much go anywhere (as we were to learn). We also learned that the engine vents hot air into the cab at all times (no A/C), which is nice when it's cold outside, but not so nice in the middle of the Gobi. We had the windows open a lot.

Off we went, dealing with the infamously bad UB traffic on the way out of town. Once we cleared the main part of the city, Batra pulled off the asphalt road onto a dirt track. We thought this was temporary - little did we know that we wouldn't see another paved road until we headed back to UB 12 days later. Here's what it looks like from the backseat - if this makes you a bit queasy, think of how we felt...

Here's a view from our first stop - there's UB in the background, and the dirt track leading up to our first pass (marked with the ubiquitous ovoo). After we went around the cairn three times and added our rock for good luck, we continued our drive.

After a couple of hours of bumping along, we stopped next to the Zorgol Khairkhan mountain. We made a bush bio-break and then climbed around for a while while Enkhay made lunch.

  • NB: Our meal (which would be repeated in various incarnations as both lunch and dinner) was a combination of pasta, mutton, and some vegetables (usually carrots, cucumber, and cabbage). Sometimes there were potatoes. Sometimes it was soup. It pretty much all tasted the same. Not bad, but the repetition started to verge on monotonous by the end of the trip.

We reached our destination mid-afternoon. There was a cave to explore, rocks to climb (and jump off of), and an abandoned monastery. We had our first encounter with the local cow mouse (zuram in mongolian). Cute!

Our first evening staying with a nomadic family in one of their gers was an interesting experience. It was bigger inside than we expected, and pretty cozy with the wall coverings, although we were all calling for the chiropractor after a night sleeping on the thin mattresses. We had a quick dinner, watched the goats getting milked (they were tied together by their heads, which made for the funny picture below), and watched our first sunset in the desert. We slept well, although the goats were LOUD!


After having breakfast at the campsite we will drive to Tsagaan Suvarga /White Stupa/. In the afternoon, we will reach the Tsagaan Suvarga and explore to see white stupa and go for hiking around. Tsagaan Suvarga, an amazing series of cliffs, white and pink limestone rock formations taking the appearance of stalagmites up to 30 meters high. It is an excellent site for taking photography of the beautiful panoramic views. Stay overnight in family ger.

Day 2 started with the same breakfast that we would see for the remainder of the trip - bread, butter, jam, instant coffee with powdered milk, tea, and (perhaps) a thin pancake or bread dipped in egg and fried. Filling, but not so great for someone who's trying to avoid gluten (sorry Anne!).

We then set off to visit the "White Stupa". We should have realized that something was up with the quotes, since there was no actual stupa (a type of temple). These were actually very brightly colored cliffs, formed by erosion and layers of colored stones. Pretty beautiful.

What was even more exciting was the drive to the cliffs. Enkhay told us that this road was nicknamed "Crazy Mouse" after a Mongolian kids game, and it was certainly crazy. We didn't get to take any video during this section (we were too busy trying to hang on), but there were a couple of sections where we thought we were going to tip the whole van over. Luckily, we made it through intact, but it was certainly CRAZY!

Once we found our ger camp for the night (nomadic families have a tendency to move around, and Batra had his hands full trying to locate them), we met the family, which included a daughter about Leah's age. She was very nice, and we spent some time playing volleyball, soccer, hopscotch, and visiting the local camels. She showed us their baby white camel too! (BTW, camels are really loud at night!)

In the morning, we left her with a bracelet and a new hair band. Little things, but she really liked them!


After having breakfast at the family, we will start driving to Yoliin Am, which is a deep narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, covering 70 sq.kms. There is a small natural museum at the entrance of the National park which exhibits a collection of dinosaur eggs, bones, stuffed birds and snow leopard. This place is also very rich by the rare plants.
After we seeing the museum at the entrance we will drive about 10kms to get to the car parking where we leave our car there and walk a head to the ice gorge and stream for a several kms. In the winter time, the stream freezes several kms into the gorge. It remains frozen for most of the year, except late summer. We will see the ice gorge until end of the July. The ice remains usually disappear around early August.
On the way we get to the Yoliin Am we will stop for a lunch in a huge flat steppe. Once we wandering around the gorge, we will get back to our car and drive to the next family we will stay there for tonight.

Today we would go to the "ice gorge". Back in the van (we started calling it "Wally") and a couple more hours bumping around. We stopped for lunch in THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Seriously.

It was a sunny afternoon, and the gorge was a beautiful place to hike through. Unfortunately, although the description said that there would be ice until August, when we visited it was mostly all gone (we saw one or two spots remaining). Nevertheless, it was a wonderful place to explore and climb around. We saw more "cow mice" and ground squirrels. Since this area of Mongolia has so few trees, most animals nest on the ground. When walking or driving around we were constantly sending them scurrying or flying off in all directions.

That night, we met a couple of other Westerners that lived in UB and were visiting. We had a great time playing cards and hanging out with them, as well as celebrating Canada Day the next morning!


After having breakfast, we will drive to the sand dunes called Khongoriin Els. The Khongoriin Els sand dunes lie north of the Baruunsaikhan Mountain in the northern part of the Sevrei and Zuulun Mountains. The Khongoriin Els is one of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia and they are up to 200m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. The largest dunes are at the northwest corner of the range. You can climb to the top of the sand dunes and then slide back down on the plastic bags. The views of the desert from the top are wonderful. Climbing to the top of the dunes during the sunset gives you an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding desert, to the north lies the Khongoriin River. We will stay overnight in a family ger.

It was a long drive to the Khongor sand dunes, made a bit longer by a flat tire and pitstop for a distributor cap replacement. Luckily, Batra is as good of a repair mechanic as he is a driver, and the stops were pretty quick. We had lunch in a gorgeous canyon,

and the rolled up to the sand dunes in the late afternoon.

It was very hot during the day, so we laid low until it cooled off a bit in the evening, and then hiked up the dunes to take some pictures of the sunset. It was a hard climb, but well worth it for the views.

On the way down, we learned why they call these the "Singing Dunes". As the sand moves down the hill, it generates a low rumble and vibration much like a truck or an airplane. We wish we had gotten some audio/video, but (thanks to the magic of YouTube) you can hear it here. It was pretty amazing.


Today after breakfast, we can possibly arrange some optional camelback riding around the sand dunes before the lunch time. After having lunch at the family we will climb and hike to the top of the biggest sand dunes. We will stay overnight in a family ger tonight.

The day dawned HOT, and we grabbed a quick breakfast and went out for our camel ride before it got any hotter. Camel riding was a neat experience, although it really consisted of the camel walking around for an hour while being led by one of the local kids. However, we can validate that camels are quite tall, the humps are kind of floppy, and they do sneeze quite a bit.

After camel riding/walking, we hid in our ger for the rest of the day to stay out of the 40C degree weather (>100F!). At least it was easy to dry our laundry. When it got cooler again in the evening, we went for another adventure to the sand dunes.

We all enjoyed playing with the local dogs there too - this one had the hugest head we've ever seen!


After having breakfast this morning, we will drive to the Bayanzag which is an important fossil finds have been made. It was given name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman who visited there in the 1920s. The area is the most famous place for finding the first discovery of dinosaur fossils. There is a picturesque saxaul forest the place is named after and colorful rocks which is brilliantly colorful. We will visit Mongolian family there and will staying overnight with their ger.

Another long day of driving to get to our next stop at the Flaming Cliffs. They had another pack (gang?) of camels there, large_DSC05605.jpg
and we got settled into our ger and met some other other travelers before it was cool enough to go to the cliffs (did we mention that this was the desert?).

The Flaming Cliffs are well known for their beauty and for their location as one of the early dinosaur fossil finds (so Enkhay told us), but we had fun just climbing around and exploring. BUT, we were sad when we got to the little shop there and learned that they had just run out of ice cream. TEASE!


After having breakfast in the family at the Bayanzag, we will head off to Saikhan Ovoo which is a small village in the Middle Gobi province. The bend in the river marks, the remains of two ruined monasteries, the Barlim Khiid on the north bank and the Khutagt Khiid on the south. The monastery used to have about 500 monks and built in the late 18th century for dedicating the first visit to Mongolia by a Dalai Lama. The monastery was reopened in 1990 and current Dalai Lama visited in 1992.

When we pulled into our next location, we were ecstatic. We had been promised that the next ger camp would have a shower (it had been days since our last one), and we saw a big luxury ger camp laid out in front of us. Unfortunately, we were on the "budget" tour, and passed by the fancy place to a decidedly less fancy place. It was okay - they actually had electricity where we could recharge our camera batteries and various electronics while we took a shower (lukewarm and drippy, but it got us mostly clean...) We learned later that it was $70 per person per night at the fancy place, vs. $5 pp at the place we were at. We made it up to ourselves by walking over to the fancy place and crashing the restaurant for cold drinks and chips while using their electricity. WooHoo - rebels us.

There was also a trip to the monastery next door, but since every building had been razed by the Communists in the 1930's, and the river had all dried up. But the one reconstructed building that we visited was very interesting (although they didn't allow for pictures inside...you can use your imagination).


This morning after breakfast, we will drive to the Orkhon waterfall. In the afternoon, we will arrive to the waterfall called Ulaan Tsutgalan /Orkhon Waterfall/, enjoy spectacular view of the waterfall and surrounding area, where we will have chance to take some beautiful photo shots of Orkhon Waterfall. The Orkhon river drops into 20 kms volcanic crack thus forming the 24 meter high waterfall of Ulaan Tsutgalan, highlight of the area. We are having dinner and stay overnight in a ger.

We're moving north now, heading out of the desert into the cooler, more forested areas of Mongolia. The scenery is fantastic no matter where you look, with big mixed herds of goats and sheep, bands of free-range horses, and the first yaks we've seen. These goats watched us closely as we clambered around camp.

Unfortunately, there was no water for the waterfall, so that was a bit of a bust. We had a good time playing with the local dogs (and goats), and we did get to see a smaller waterfall the next morning.


We drive to Tsenkher hot spring, a sulphur spring that emerges from the ground at a sizzing 89C. Facilities include outdoor and indoor baths, showers and accommodations.

This day had the shortest description, but was by far our least favorite. The "baths" were dirty (and filled with big Mongolian men), the changing rooms were full of flies (see video), and the showers reeked of sulpher. Here's Leah's opinion of the baths:

The place that we were staying was beautiful though. About 15 minutes away from the "resort", on the banks of a pretty river, with lots of hills and horses and dogs. No end of good photo ops...


After having breakfast at the family we stayed, we will drive to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (White lake) and Khorgo volcano. The Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is also known as White Lake in the Khangai Mountain range in central Mongolia with relatively pure fresh water. The lake is 16 km wide, about 4-10m deep with its deepest point at 28m and over 20kms in a length. It is flooded 61sq.km and the lake has pike and other fishes. Rare birds are found here as well. This volcanic lake was created thousands of years ago by lava flows from the nearby Khorgo Mountain volcano. Khorgo Mountain is an extinct volcano, which lies east of the White lake. This area has been protected since 1965, fully in 1997. Once we arrive to the White Lake, we will visiting nomadic family there and walk around the lake. We can go for fishing and swimming before the dinner. We are going to staying in a Mongolian family ger.

This was probably the longest drive day that we had. Over mountain passes and across rivers, we finally made it to Tsesterleg, the city center of the aymag (province) that we were in. A quick stop to replenish food and snacks, and we headed into the national park / protected area.

After a close call of possibly staying in the coldest/dirtiest ger we had seen so far, we switched to the next camp and crowded into the family's kitchen ger for some warm yaks milk and cookies. Once we had been properly welcomed, they showed us to our cozy and warm ger. Good thing, because we were here for two nights, and it was pretty cold (and rainy!). The White Lake area is very pretty, and we spent the afternoon climbing around and exploring the area (and playing with the local dog - sense a theme here?)

Noah and Alex even had a close encounter with a yak!


Today after breakfast, we possibly arrange an optional horseback riding trek to the Khorgo volcano. Once we get there we will climb to a volcanic crater, the Khorgo at 2100m. From the summit there opens a splendid views over the landscape and the lake. We will ride back to the same family and stay overnight there.

Horseback riding day - and we got a good one. While the previous day had been cold and rainy, today was much warmer, although still a little cloudy. Our ride today would be 90 minutes to the crater, then a hike up, followed by lunch, and then the ride back. We got saddled up on our Mongolian horses, and set off.

We had a great time, even though we got a bit rained on during the return. Our horses were all pretty well behaved, and we even got a bit of a canter in! A very good time, but we were all walking funny by the end (sore!). We spent the evening playing soccer with the local kids, and snuggling next to the stove in the ger (a far cry from the heat of the Gobi!).


After breakfast, we will drive to Kharkhorin which was a capital city of Mongolia in 13th century for about 30 years, located in northwestern part of Uvurkhangai province of Mongolia. On the way to get to the Kharkhorin we will have a lunch on the open space of Mongolian countryside. We will drive forward to Kharkhorin after the lunch. One of the Mongolian most attractive monasteries Erdenezuu locates in Kharkhorin City. The Erdenezuu monastery is the most ancient survived Buddist monastery in Kharkhorin, Mongolia. The Erdenezuu monastery was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan and the monastery was allowed to exist as a museum, the only functioning monastery was Gandan monastery in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. However after the fall of communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over the lamas and Erdenezuu again became a place of worship. Once we get there, we will accommodate in a town ger hostel. After having dinner in a hostel, we will have a free time hiking or wandering around the town.

Our last big day (and night). We actually got to drive on a paved road for the majority of the day, which was a very welcome change. It took us until mid-afternoon to make it to Kharkhorin, where we spent an hour visiting the monastery. Noah even got to hold a giant eagle - pretty amazing!

An early night prepared us for our final day's return to UB.


After having breakfast at the hostel, we will visit Erdenezuu monastery. After visiting the monastery, we will drive back to Ulaanbaatar. On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we will stop by the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. When we arrive to Ulaanbaatar, we will be transferred to a hostel or hotel for tonight.


This was a wonderful time. We saw (and experienced) so much, it's tough to write it all down. Suffice to say that for everything that we wrote here, there's another story (or two) behind it. Mongolia is a fantastic place - the people were all very kind and hospitable, and the landscapes are stunning. We look forward to returning to explore more of this country (but we were very happy to be out of the van!).

Posted by noahv 02:29 Archived in Mongolia Comments (5)

Friday Photo - Elephant Love


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.
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.

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.

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!

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).
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.

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!

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.

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.

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…


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.


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.


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!

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!

Once at the top, we took a breather and had a bit of water while we looked at the map:
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.

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...

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.

This one was supposed to look like an ancient Vietnamese house - I thought it was pretty cute:

I also got a bit creative with the camera and the colors in the cave:

Here's a few to get a sense of scale:

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!)

On our way out, we had a good laugh about all of the warning signs around.
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):

Once we got geared up with headlamps, helmets, and lifejackets, we got into our kayaks:

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):

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...

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.
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!


  • 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),

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).

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!

But tell us, are these people swimming in a really small pool, or in the fountain? We couldn't decide...

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.
Our flower bath - after the full-body massage and before the foot massage / facial (you can guess who got what)

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

Happy AnniversaryMoon!

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!

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!

Our lovely bed

The view from our balcony

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

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.
Look out behind you Anne!


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,

and then got a lift into Ubud for some sightseeing and shopping and a great lunch at Warung Sopa.

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

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)

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