Waterfalls and coffee: That's what Laos Does

I had to be physically shaken to be woken up when the bus arrived in Pakse, Laos. It was an overnight sleeper bus. We left Vientiane around 8:30pm and arrived in Pakse at 6:00am. I had heard some not so great things about sleeper buses in Southeast Asia - crowded, hot, bumpy, dangerous. Mine was lovely.

Crossing a bridge on a foggy day on the Bolaven Plateau

Crossing a bridge on a foggy day on the Bolaven Plateau

First I got really lucky not to have a bedmate. Each bunk is about the size of a twin bed and your one ticket entitles you to half of it. There's no barrier or anything; you're just snuggling up with your new found spooning partner for the trip. We started pulling out of the station and the bus was barely half full. I didn't get too excited because buses here always stop randomly along the road and pick up passengers. And we did, but the bus was still not full and no one was next to me. Eventually we were on a dark two lane highway type of road heading south and I figured it was ok to get excited about my full bunk. Pants came off, blanket tucked in, and I was out until Pakse. One of the better night's sleep I had in quite a while.

A mini waterfall

A mini waterfall

Pakse is a flat, dusty town. Not a lot to it. One main tourist road with decent restaurants. The tallest building in town is a six or seven story hotel with a nice restaurant and bar on the roof that hosts the best view in the city. Like several cities in Laos, Pakse lies at the intersection of the Mekong and another river - the Xe Don in this case. The rivers make for good sunsets. Which is good because there's not much else to do but watch the sun go down over the river.

View from on top of Hotel Pakse

View from on top of Hotel Pakse

I did stumble across a barbershop and decided I needed a haircut. It was funny getting a haircut from someone who doesn't speak your language at all. I'm not too particular about my hair; it always grows back. She trims up sharp though using a single razor blade. I did notice a sizable square nick in the hairline on the back of my neck later. I assume it's a mark she gives to all her foreign clients as a cruel joke. At least I hope so. That would be hilarious.

Waterfalls starting to get bigger

Waterfalls starting to get bigger

The reason I stopped in Pakse was to explore the Bolaven Plateau. And the best way to do that was by motorbike - especially if you are an experienced motorbiker like me. I mean all my scrapes from my last bike trip were pretty much healed by now. So might as well get some new ones, can't dance.

Nothing to do with a motorbike

Nothing to do with a motorbike

The Bolaven Plateau sits just east of Pakse. You gain some 3,800 feet of elevation heading out of the city. As I set out it started raining on and off. I kept stopping at different places to get out of the rain. The only "problem" was that this area is known for its coffee production so every place I stopped was a coffee shop. I had so much coffee this morning. All of it so delicious. I didn't mind. I was shaking a little bit by that fourth cup or so but not enough to affect my motorbiking skills apparently.

And bigger

And bigger

Besides delicious, freshly roasted, amazing smelling coffee, the plateau is known for waterfalls. That first day the fog crept in as I climbed up out of the dusty plain and onto the lush green plateau. The ride was nice. The trees, hills, fields, and rivers looked cool in the fog. The waterfalls however where out of sight with the dense fog. I stopped at two waterfalls that SOUNDED really awesome, but that's all I got. The loud, powerful sound of water falling off a cliff and endlessly hitting rock below.

Looking over the edge of the Bolaven Plateau  

Looking over the edge of the Bolaven Plateau  

So I just continued on to Attapeu. This little town is a world apart from the Laos I had been before. It's the biggest town toward the Vietnam border. Every single person that I spoke to here was originally from Vietnam. All the signs above businesses were in Vietnamese. People here spoke about as much Lao as I did - which is my favorite language I've encountered on this trip so far. It was very much a mini Vietnam. I tried to order Pho for dinner, but they only have it for breakfast. That's how you know it's a real Vietnamese place.

An evening in Attapeu  

An evening in Attapeu  

The second day I took the northern half of the loop back to Pakse stopping multiple times along the way for more coffee. You really have no other options when you keep passing coffee plantation after coffee plantation and then you pass a huge factory which gives of the smell of roasting coffee beans that follows you long after you pass it.

Top of Tad Suong  

Top of Tad Suong  

I finally got to see some waterfalls today. I think six in total. Some wide and massive, others with several short falls strung together, all near coffee shops. The best however was Tad Suong. It was a smaller river that fell off of the plateau itself. A single stream jumps off of the highland above and down onto the flat plains below. It's about a 150 foot drop maybe. It's really a cool sight from the top where you can see for miles and miles at the flat lands below you and from the bottom where you watch the water splash down among huge boulders that must have taken that same tumble long ago.

On my way down to the bottom of Tad Suong

On my way down to the bottom of Tad Suong

Boulders at the bottom of Tad Suong

Boulders at the bottom of Tad Suong

It rained off and on again today. Sometimes hard enough to not be able to see all that well. I didn't realize how much rain stings. It really hurts when your moving through it at speed. The bad part about a motorbike is that you get wet really quickly when it rains. The good part is that you dry off really quickly with any break in the rain. And if the sun comes out, you go from drenched to desert really fast. Even with all the rain, I had no accidents on the motorbike this time. I did get a little nervous once when going through mud with a group of locals sitting there watching me, but I made it through unscathed.

I somehow managed to make it through

I somehow managed to make it through

Back in Pakse I had a productive evening eating ice cream and getting ready for my bus trip the next morning to Phnom Penh, Cambodia! At least I thought that's where I was going....

Baguettes and Sunsets - Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a beautiful little town in mountainous northern Laos. The center of the city is a small peninsula, three blocks by ten blocks or so, surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It has a distinct French influence and cafes line the streets giving off smells of coffee and bread. The European architecture is noticeable walking down the street. It just looks different even to the untrained eye. Shops along the street with rooms above. Small alley ways between white buildings with orange shingles. It is a relatively clean place and pleasant to walk through and explore.

A little alley in Luang Prabang

A little alley in Luang Prabang

I forgot how good bread was! I had a baguette with jam and coffee every morning in Luang Prabang. And it was so good. Laos has plenty of western food - particularly sandwiches. But it also has its own local Asian food too. Delicious noodle soups, classic fried noodles, lots of meats on sticks, and their own version of khao soi, which was definitely a totally different dish than northern Thailand, but still good and nice and spicy. To my relief fruit shakes were readily available and especially good in the very hot midday sun.

Night market  

Night market  

Northern Laos is also known for its rice whiskey. I was getting an early lunch at a small sidewalk restaurant when a local dude came up and felt like chatting. His English was good enough for a conversation - not that it takes much. I've been getting pretty good at having entire conversations with maybe ten English words. One of these conversations may be completely different for the two parties involved but that's beside the point. Anyway he had some family in Seattle and was happy to talk and share his rice whiskey. It was only 10:30am but it would have been impolite not to accept. It was actually pretty smooth. I don't know if whiskey is the right term. It was a clear liquor made from rice, but they called it whiskey. There are probably some people from Tennessee who would disagree. The nice, polite guy that I am, I accepted three shots before he finally had to go. Thank goodness.

First night's sunset in Luang Prabang

First night's sunset in Luang Prabang

During my three and a half days in Luang Prabang I rented a mountain bike. It was nice to be on a bicycle again although it made me miss my old ride back in Alabama. There was some good mountain biking to be had around the area though.

Luang Prabang from Mt Phousi

Luang Prabang from Mt Phousi

One day I went across the river to the rural Chomphet area. As soon as you cross the river on the ferry you notice how different this area is. Much more rural and poor and spread out. No tuk-tuks, no cars, no paved roads, hardly any concrete building. Here it's all farmland and dirt roads which makes for some fun biking, especially in the rainy season. I did a big loop around the country side. I had to ford two rushing streams and cross a couple flooded roads. I didn't even lose my shoes. Guess I have learned since Maine. It rained really good a few times. The roads were nice and muddy. And by the end I was nice and muddy too. On the ferry back I tried not to touch anything or anyone since I would have left my hand prints in mud everywhere.

Country roads take me home

Country roads take me home

Some things are more fun in the rainy season

Some things are more fun in the rainy season

Another day I rode out to Kuang Si waterfall, a popular spot about 35 kilometers out from Luang Prabang. The trip was nice. Paved roads winding around the Laos countryside. I only had to go up and over one mountain, but it came with a nice view so I didn't mind. The traffic was pretty minimal, and they drive on the right side of the road in Laos. It's amazing how quickly you become used to something different, like driving on the left. I had spent the last month in left hand side driving countries so I had to remind myself to stay on the right side sometimes. Not that any of the other drivers stayed on their side of the road anyway though. But I was only run off the road once by a truck making an unnecessarily wide turn into my lane. At least I had a helmet.

Vat Visounnarath

Vat Visounnarath

Kuang Si waterfall kept surprising me. It's a long waterfall. Keeps continuing in stages as you walk up river until you finally reach the big one at the top. By that point I had already stopped several times to relax and cool off in the chilly pools of lots of smaller waterfalls. I wasn't expecting a huge fall at the top, but it was a good surprise. And impressive. The rainy season rendered the water more of a tan color than the impossibly crystal clue that you see if you google image "Kuang Si waterfall". It was also flowing very high. Water was flooding picnic areas, which I only know because I could see picnic table islands in the river.

Part of the long Kuang Si Waterfalls

Part of the long Kuang Si Waterfalls

More Kuang Si Waterfall

More Kuang Si Waterfall

There was a bear sanctuary right next to the waterfall too. It's a place where bears are taken when they are rescued from the hands of poachers. Some are missing paws or whole limbs from traps; others are rescued from small bear-sized cages where they lay everyday with tubes injected into them to extract bile. All of these bears would be killed as soon as they were no longer useful to the poachers. They are all too traumatized or ill equipped to return to the wild so they come here. They all seem as happy as they can be, climbing around on three legs or laying in bear hammocks. There are even rescued cubs there. They were super playful. I got a "Free the Bears" shirt. It's pretty sweet.

Just a couple bears hanging out

Just a couple bears hanging out

The best sunset spot in Luang Prabang is on top of Mt Phousi, and it's pretty damn good. Mt Phousi is a medium sized hill with a temple up top really, but it's right in the middle of a very flat Luang Prabang so you get an awesome 360 degree view of the city and surrounding landscape. The sun sets behind mountains with the Mekong picturesquely running down below. When the clouds are right, it's brilliant.

The clouds were just right for sunset atop Mt Phousi

The clouds were just right for sunset atop Mt Phousi

Luang Prabang is famous for the procession of hundreds of Monks the leave their respective temples at dawn to take alms from respectful and caring locals. Maybe this is a bad thing - the famous part. I went out one morning at dawn and the whole scene was a little sad. There were tourist unapologetically getting right in the face of the monks walking down the street to take pictures. There were local vendors set up on the street selling rice and other foodstuffs so that tourists could take part in the ceremony even though they most likely have no idea what it means or how to correctly and respectfully take part. Monks took all the offerings from everyone, but then I would see them throwing away some of it as they turned the corner. It was much cooler seeing this ritual in small towns or rural areas in Thailand where it wasn't a tourist attraction; it was a way of life. Where it wasn't a monk parade; it was a few monks walking along small roads to eagerly awaiting families. 

Monks walking down the road  

Monks walking down the road  

Look how young some of them are! 

Look how young some of them are! 

Luang Prabang is a nice place to spend more than a few days. Have some coffee and ice cream. Do some biking and swimming. See friendly bears and monks. Enjoy baguettes and sunsets.

Rep that flag

Rep that flag

Slow Boatin' Down the River

My introduction to Laos couldn't have been nicer. Maybe we should always be introduced while slowly floating down a river in a long wooden boat with a cool river breeze coming in. I think we would all have more friends.

Looking out of the boat

Looking out of the boat

Update to my "Favorite Modes of Travel" list if you're keeping track at home.... A large motorized longboat down a major river has moved up to number four.

The scene inside

The scene inside

The boat was long and narrow. Roughly the size of the interior of an airplane, maybe a little wider. It was all wooden and colorful. There was a canopy overhead to provide shade from the intense river sun, but the sides were open with long curtains as protection from the rain. The seats were old car seats that now had a new home on the water. They are not bolted down so you have to be careful when getting up and down not to flip them over. There's a captain with an old school pirate ship steering wheel up front and a little shop selling noodles and beer in the back. There's also a restroom and a smoking area in the far back. It was quite the ship for the two day journey. And after we waited an extra half hour for the captain to wake up from his nap, we were off on the Mekong River.

Heading out in muddy water

Heading out in muddy water

We set out from Huay Xai, Laos, right on the Thai border, and ended in Luang Prabang, the fourth biggest city in Laos. For those two days on the river there is not much to do. There's no in flight movie, wifi, or lunch breaks. The boat moved slow and steady down the river, only stopping to pick up or drop off locals at seemingly random spots along the river bank or when the captain had to use the restroom - apparently no one else is capable of steering the boat down the wide river. It was really very peaceful though. I read, wrote, chatted with other travelers, and snacked. I would look up every once in a while after forgetting I was floating down the Mekong through the rural mountains and farmlands of Laos. I was happily surprised at the amazing scenery around me every time. There were large water buffalo hanging out on the river banks or a small village with houses perched on the mountainside or steep mountains coming right up from the river covered from head to toe in lush, green vegetation. It rained a couple of times but the only time I ever got wet was when a rogue wave came out of nowhere and gave me and a couple others a wake up splash. It was a great way to take your time getting somewhere.

Sometimes it rained

Sometimes it rained

The two day river trip took a break for the night in Pak Beng. It is a small town that seems like it's only there to function as the halfway break point between Thailand and Luang Prabang. Maybe it used to have a different purpose, but now the only two streets of the town are lined with guesthouses and restaurants for tourists. As the boat pulls in you can see the locals lining up at the pier ready to sell you a room or snacks. I grabbed my bag and dashed through them, looking straight ahead the whole time. Don't make eye contact and definitely don't speak to any of them. At that point they will all just converge on you until you can't breath. Much better to get away and walk around town on your own time looking for a place. There are always plenty of beds available. Worst case, I have a hammock.

Cliffs on the river

Cliffs on the river

Parking was always difficult

Parking was always difficult

I had dinner with a couple of friends from the boat at a really good Indian restaurant and then we ventured to Happy Bar. If you are looking for Happy Bar while in Pak Beng, just follow the reggae music and green, yellow, and red color scheme. You will be welcomed with a free shot of Laos whiskey and a smile. We played Jenga and opted for a hookah - although we chose apple flavored tobacco and decided against the "happy" flavored. They had an entire happy smoking section. This might explain why their service was pretty slow, but damn it they were cheerful. I enjoyed a couple Beerlao and went to bed early. It was going to be a long, hard day on the river tomorrow after all.

The Happy Bar is hidden in there if you look hard enough

The Happy Bar is hidden in there if you look hard enough

Arriving in Luang Prabang

Arriving in Luang Prabang

Motorbiking- like biking but faster

The Mae Hong Son Loop is a fairly well traveled path through northern Thailand. Basically there are two roads that connect Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. One from the south and one from the north. Together they make a big 600km circle. There are tons of little villages, a couple small towns, a few national parks, dozens of awesome waterfalls, about 2000 marked, incredibly sharp turns, and an infinite amount of rice paddies and mountains and awesome views. It's a beautiful journey.

One of the many curves

One of the many curves

 Many times it reminded me of driving through the back roads of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. The mountains aren't huge or rocky sharp, and they are covered in lush forest. These mountains are the very foothills of the Himalayan Range, and if you took away the rice paddies and banana trees, they look like the southern Appalachian Range. When the mountains got a little bigger and it was cloudy and foggy, these mountains could be mistaken for the Smokies from a distance. Reminded me of home a bit. It was nice.

A Thai Smokies

A Thai Smokies

 Renting the motorbike was easy, almost too easy. I have no experience on with a bike that has a motor, but I do have lots of experience with a bicycle. I think that helped a bit. I was just happy to drive away from the shop without immediately falling over. It's heavier than it looks. After just a couple turns I got the hang of it, and it became so much fun to drive. Chiang Mai is a good place to rent your first motorbike because the streets are not too crowded and people don't drive as crazy as they do in other parts of Southeast Asia. Always wear a helmet!

Driving through the mountains

Driving through the mountains

I left Chiang Mai early with Mae Sariang as my final destination for the night. The road today took me through Doi Inthanon National Park, the home of the highest point in Thailand. I could feel the air get chillier as I climbed higher and higher up the mountain. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick, wet forest so there wasn't a view up top except for the monument to an old king who loved this mountain long ago. The park is also home to some crazy beautiful waterfalls. This was definitely my greatest waterfall day ever. I saw maybe four or five waterfalls, and they were all incredibly impressive. Huge and powerful. The whole park was great. The drive alone is worth the trip. So many great views and fun turns.

The top of Thailand

The top of Thailand

 One thing I failed to realize was how little range you have on a small motorbike. It does get great gas mileage, but it only holds about a gallon of gas so you can't go too far without refueling. I noticed my gas situation when I was in the national park and there was no fuel to be found. I was on empty and I was still going up the mountain. I figured as long as I could make it over the mountain, it was all down hill to the town of Mae Chaem from there. I coasted downhill for about 20km refusing to look at the fuel gauge because I knew it would tell me I was an idiot for not get fuel sooner. Made it to town just in time for gas and lunch.

So so so many waterfalls. And huge ones too. 

So so so many waterfalls. And huge ones too. 

I reached the quiet town of Mae Sariang easily enough. It's a small town on the banks of a river in the valley of the surrounding mountains. I really liked it here. I even stayed two nights, although that was mostly an accident. I had a nice room with a balcony overlooking the river. I went out and got a couple beers to enjoy the only entertainment in town - watching the sunset over the river. And that suited me just fine.

My tv for the night

My tv for the night

I had an ambitious plan the next morning. I wanted to get to the little town of Mae Sam Laep on the Thailand - Myanmar border. It was in the opposite direction that I needed to go so I wanted to get there and back by noon. It was only supposed to be two hours away. I left about 6:30am. The morning was beautiful. It was great to see rural Thailand, everyday small town life. As I rode through town and into the surrounding fields there were kids in their uniform waiting for the truck to pick them up for school, there were monks making their daily walk about town and people giving alms, there were farmers already out tending their rice paddies.

Fields around Mae Sariang  

Fields around Mae Sariang  

They drive started out beautiful. A small road through remote jungle mountains. Eventually the nice paved road ran out and was replaced by a dirt road full of muddy potholes. By this point I felt like an expert motorbike rider and I was weaving around all the potholes easily. I started going down the mountain a little bit and things got a little slipperier. There were a couple long stretches of muddy road with no way around. I made it through a couple of these stretches with my street bike that was definitely not made for this situation. I finally came across a patch that I couldn't handle. It was the longest one yet and about halfway through it the bike started fishtailing and I went down. Literally face first into mud. Sticky, dirt orange, wet mud. The entire right side of my body and my beard were covered in mud. My bike seemed to be okay. Although it was covered in mud too. I pushed myself and my bike out of the mud pit and tried to clean up the best I could. A couple locals drove by and I just waved with my not as muddy left hand.

Walking through the jungle. I was muddy. I promise.  

Walking through the jungle. I was muddy. I promise.  

As I tried to clean myself off, eventually I reached a point where I wasn't going to get any cleaner so I hopped on my bike and continued on. Another local came up behind me and looked at me laughing. He motioned to follow him so I did. We stopped at his house and he let me rinse off as much as I could while he sprayed my bike down. He didn't speak a word of English, but I tried to tell him what happened and I'm pretty sure he got the picture from the look of the whole thing and we had a good laugh.

Another Doi Inthanon National Park waterfall

Another Doi Inthanon National Park waterfall

About 100 meters after leaving his house I can across an even bigger mud pit that I knew for sure I couldn't get across with my bike and I definitely didn't want to go back to this guy's house and rinse off AGAIN. So I left my bike on the side of the road and started hiking. I knew I was only a couple miles away from the border, and there was no way I was not going to get there after this fiasco. I know I looked pretty crazy. Like something out of Rambo. I was wearing boots, green pants, brown long sleeve shirt, and a bandana. I was covered in mud from head to toe (I seriously found mud in my beard for days after this) and I was walking through the remote jungle of Northern Thailand. All the locals along the way just stared at me. I don't think they see many foreigners and certainly none covered in mud coming through on foot. The little kids are the funniest. They looked at me in total amazement and confusion.

The Salawin River - between Thailand and Myanmar

The Salawin River - between Thailand and Myanmar

I finally made it to the little village on the Salawin River, which is the border between the two countries. Here I met a couple friendly locals who I told about my adventure that morning through hand motions and sound effects. We all laughed. I bought some snacks from people selling delicious curry filled pastries out of their homes and made the trek back. Still covered in mud.

Downtown Mae Sam Laep

Downtown Mae Sam Laep

I was cutting it close to making it back by checkout time. And then it started pouring rain. It helped with the mud at least. When I arrived soaking wet right at check out time, it was still storming outside and there was no way I was going to continue another three or four hours to the next town. I don't think I physically could have. It was impossible to see when it was raining so hard. And the view of the river during a storm from inside a cozy hotel room was a nice sight. So I washed the mud off all my clothes, that took quite a while, and took a nap, which also took a while.

Good views everywhere

Good views everywhere

The next day was a long drive to Pai. I had to make up for lost time. My first stop was Mae Hong Son, the loop's namesake. Here I had my favorite meal in Thailand - Khao Soi. It is actually a Burmese dish, but it has been adopted by northern Thailand. I could describe it, but I'm not totally sure of all the ingredients. I will figure it out and be making it when I get back to the states though. Generally it's a curry with noodles and chicken and pickled greens. I had it again for dinner that night in Pai. And a couple times when I got back to Chiang Mai too.

Fun collection in Mae Hong Son

Fun collection in Mae Hong Son

Next stop was Sop Pong and Tham Lod. Sop Pong is a town, and Tham Lod is a cave just for clarification. During the rainy season only one of the three main caverns are open in Tham Lod due to high water. So I just took a short tour of the largest cavern. You had to take a bamboo raft over some water to get to the entrance, and the guide carried an old school lantern. That was pretty neat. It was a really big cave with tall ceilings. There were some cool formations, and my favorite was a huge column that you know must have taken a billion years to create. Apparently a million bats live deeper in the cave and come out at dusk, but since I still had an hour drive on a winding mountain road, I couldn't wait that long. Plus it looked like it was about to start raining. After a quick watermelon shake with a couple of Kiwis I met in the cave, I was on my way - in the rain.

Inside Tham Lod

Inside Tham Lod

Pai rivals Gili Trawangan in Indonesia as the ultimate hippy destination. Quite a contrast to my previous three days in small, rural towns. Pai isn't a big place but it's busy. There are lots of restaurants serving western food, and they really cater toward tourists. There's not much Thai in Pai. As I said, the hippy crowd is very present. During breakfast at a cafe you will overhear people making tough decisions such as when would be the best time to take those shrooms. Or celebrating the amazing decision to smoke that joint before getting that noodle bowl for lunch. I'm sure it did tastes really, really good.

The town of Pai

The town of Pai

What Pai does, it does well. Accommodations are cheap and nice. Bungalows and hammocks everywhere. The western food is pretty good with lots of pizzerias, kebab stands, and coffee shops. It's in a beautiful river valley that you can explore on a bike. And the weather is pretty mild. If you are looking for a place to chill and have a good time for a couple days or weeks, it's a great spot.

Exploring the scenery around Pai

Exploring the scenery around Pai

While I was here I explore the Pai Canyon, a couple different waterfalls, climbed the temple to the White Buddha overlooking the town, and just explored around the area on my motorbike. And I ate. Of course.

White Buddha in Pai

White Buddha in Pai

The last day of my motorbike trip was the ride back to Chiang Mai and a stop at the last waterfall on the loop - Bua Thong waterfall. An unique waterfall with little tourists, it's the most fun I've had at a waterfall with my clothes on. The Bua Thong waterfall is known as the Sticky Waterfall. There's something going on with the rocks that the water is cascading down at these falls that allows them to be "sticky". I don't know the science behind it, but it is so weird to experience. Most waterfalls, and any flowing water really, is surrounded with slippery algae covered rocks. Not only is there no algae but the rocks are either covered with or are made of a porous, cushiony material that allows you to grip on with your bare skin so easily. It makes you feel like Spider-Man for real.

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon

This isn't a small waterfall either. It is a three-tiered waterfall, and each tier has a height of at least 40 feet or so. But you can clean mob straight up the thing! It's at a nice incline and there are lots of good stepping stones that makes the climb not too difficult. It's just the counter intuitive nature of the whole thing that blows your mind. You are just standing halfway up a waterfall on rocks with a large volume of water flowing down on top of you and all around you. It is just a place where you shouldn't be able to be. And those are the best places to be, aren't they?

The odd Sticky Falls

The odd Sticky Falls

Before getting back to Chiang Mai I did a quick check of my bike. I had to turn it in today and wanted to make it look as good as possible. Or at least not like I crashed it in a mud hole. I cleaned it up, I bent back the mirror that had been at the wrong angle since the incident, tried to make the scrapes and scratches look older, and tried to make the new crack in the plastic cup holder area as unnoticeable as possible, which was really not possible. I figured my best bet to not have to pay an extra in damages was to return the bike while it was raining and as close to closing time as I could. To my surprise it actually worked. There were only two women working when I pulled up and parked the bike in the rain. I just smiled, talked a lot, and spoke English really quickly. They didn't even look at the bike before giving me my passport back and saying goodbye! I just waved and went to go look for more Khao Soi.

Coffee break

Coffee break

Love at First Sight - A Thailand Story

It felt so good to be on main land after spending the last month and a half jumping from island to island. Islands are nice and they are beautiful, but eventually you run out of room, and the ocean kind of freaks me out. I'll take a mountain over a beach anytime.

Welcome to Thailand

Welcome to Thailand

I was super excited to get to Thailand. I mean have you ever heard a bad thing about the place? The food, the mountains, the beaches, the people, the elephants, the temples, the rice paddies, the waterfalls, the cost, THE FOOD. It lived up to all the hype. All of it. The only unfortunate part of my time in Thailand was that I ended up spending more time here than I planned, but I can live with that. 

I would eat this all day everyday. And you can in Bangkok. It costs about $1. 

I would eat this all day everyday. And you can in Bangkok. It costs about $1. 

I'm always in search of the most beautiful places on my travels around the globe. Thailand had no shortage of amazing landscapes and beautiful scenes. As with most places around the world though, you have to venture out of the big cities to find these amazing spots.  So I landed in Bangkok and planned to head north right away.

Temple complex at Wat Pho in Bangkok

Temple complex at Wat Pho in Bangkok

But I did spend a day eating my way around the city first. Ratchaprarop, Khao San Road, Chinatown, The Chao Phraya River, Wat Pho, The Grand Palace, nameless markets, other random places I ended up while lost - all places that I wandered around aimlessly eating things. And looking at cool things too sometimes. But eating things was the main attraction. I seriously believe that I have gained weight during my time in Thailand.

Bangkok market

Bangkok market

After having my fill of pad thai, noodle soups, pork, chicken, rice, and Chang beer  (I skipped the crickets, scorpions, and snake heads for now) I made my way to the train station slightly drunk and very full. It was a strategic slightly drunk and very full though because I was on the night train to Chiang Mai. We rolled out of the station at 10:00pm. I fell asleep at 10:01pm. See, strategy.

Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha everywhere

Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha everywhere

The train was very comfortable. I laid in my sleeping compartment until about 10:00am, half napping and half watching the Thai landscape roll by. There was plenty of green scenery and a couple awesome tunnels through the mountains. A good train is my third favorite mode of travel just behind your own two feet and a bicycle. But it beats an airplane, a motorcycle, a vehicle, and a boat in that order.

Street food! 

Street food! 

It's rainy season in Thailand and there is nothing confusing about that. It has rained everyday but one that I can recall since arriving here. But it is usually a morning storm and an afternoon storm that last just an hour or so. Only once did it rain all day. Everyone knows it's the rainy season and prepares for it. Ponchos abound. On the plus side, you get better deals on accommodation and activities during this time of the year.

A Chiang Mai tree

A Chiang Mai tree

Chiang Mai is a much more laid back city than Bangkok. It's smaller and slower. It is surrounded by mountains, and there are outdoor activities galore. The Old City is in the heart of Chiang Mai. It is a large square area surrounded by a canal and a very old, crumbling wall on all sides. Mostly just the major gates, corners, and the large chunks of the wall are still there. Within the old city you can walk around for an entire day finding amazing restaurants, cool art stores, tons of shops selling all kinds of things, food vendors, book stores, tourist information places, and depending on the night of the week, walking markets. My hostel was just outside the North Gate and I spent most of my time wandering around the alleys of Old City drinking fruit shakes and stopping every few minutes at places that looked interesting. I felt like Forrest Gump at the White House. I  must've drank me fifteen fruit shakes.

The southwest corner of the Old City

The southwest corner of the Old City

My first full day in Chiang Mai I had only one priority - elephants. There are several different companies and tours that are available. It's best to try to go with a group that treats the elephants well. Where the elephants roam free and happy and eat all day. Granted it's tough to tell from the brochures which companies are the best, but generally the tours that don't offer riding and don't use chains are well respected. Word of mouth and recommendations from the tour agencies around town are good ways to decide which tour to go on.

Watch your toes.  

Watch your toes.  

It was an amazing experience to get so up close and personal with the elephants. Very personal, I mean we bathed together on the first date! I fed them sugarcane and some other plants they like. We hung out, took selfies, and I even gave one a big kiss. They are hairier than they appear. We made some rice balls filled with turmeric and salt to help them with their digestion. You have to hide the turmeric inside the rice well because if they see or smell it, they will not eat it.

Smooches  

Smooches  

My favorite elephant was the old man of the group. He was 66 years old. If you tried to hold out some sugar for him to grab with his trunk he would just look at you with his elephant "I'm getting to old for this shit" face and wait for you to put it directly in his mouth. Another elephant had a grudge with one of the caretakers there. The caretaker was telling us about how he recently came to work very hungover one morning. This elephant could tell and was not happy about it. Now the elephant would not eat from this guy's hand and sometimes when he passed the elephant would give him a little slap on the leg with his trunk. Elephants are great.

Elephant with an attitude.  

Elephant with an attitude.  

The next day I decided to learn how to fish instead of just eating all the fish or some saying like that. I took a cooking class. The cooking started at about 11am and we finish around 2pm. There were about six courses and I only took a break from cooking or eating to go grab another Chang. I left there so full and with a recipe book to repeat this awesome day back in the states. Just got to find a good Asian market with some good Asian chilis.

I made fire! 

I made fire! 

The organized tours of elephants and cooking were all well and good but I was ready for a little more adventure. I figured renting a motorbike, buying a map, and driving around northern Thailand in search of waterfalls, mountains, good views, and small towns would do the trick. For the next five days I headed out on the Mae Hong Son Loop and that experience is post worthy itself. So I will leave that for another time. 

The chill Chiang Mai

The chill Chiang Mai

After I got back from the Mae Hong Son Loop I spent another day in Chiang Mai with no plans other than relax and get ready to head to Laos. Sometimes that is necessary. It's hard for me to spend a whole day without some kind of challenge so sometimes I just make up my own dumb games. I decided to walk around the square of old town. Around the entire north, east, south, and west side. My only goal was to find something different to eat on each side. Sadly I must tell you that I failed. I ate a soup on the south side, a salad on the north side, a crepe on the south side, a fruit smoothie on the north side, and a few beers somewhere inside the square. If I ever make it back to Chiang Mai I will just have to try again.

A street in Chiang Mai at night.  

A street in Chiang Mai at night.  

A Cup of Java

Highlights of Java:

- Two successful volcano climbs.

- One unsuccessful volcano climb.

- A sulphur mine in one volcano crater.

- Unhealthy amounts of volcanic gas resulting in violent coughing and burning eyes.

- Singing Sweet Home Alabama to an assembly of an entire girls Muslim high school.

- Doing laundry. (Yes, laundry is a highlight in my life right now)

Ijen crater view

Ijen crater view

I reached my fourth Indonesian island after a nice ferry ride from Bali and landed in Banyuwangi. This surprisingly cool little city is one of the jumping off points to Kawah Ijen, a world famous active volcano. I didn't get a chance to do to much exploring, but Banyuwangi had a nice city center with a huge park, market, lots of street food, and a big mosque. The park was awesome. It had a huge rock climbing wall and some bouldering walls, basketball court, skate park, and soccer fields. Maybe I was just there at the right time, but people were out, food was cooking, kids were playing, and everyone was having a good time. Maybe some kind of event was going on; maybe it was just the weekend. I actually don't know if it was the weekend or not. I actually rarely know what day it is.

 

I try my best to do all my adventures independently. No tour groups. No guide. Go at my own pace. Find my own way. Carry my own things. It's been pretty easy. I'm usually in a relatively touristy area, locals see me and they try to get me to buy tours and guides for all kinds of things. I just talk to a few of them until I find someone who will give me a ride to where I need to be with none of the extras, even though they keep trying to push the extras the entire time. They are persistent, but almost always still friendly and helpful. I arrived at Banyuwangi too late to figure out my own way to Ijen, so I had to book my first tour which included transportation to Ijen and back, a guide up and down the mountain, a gas mask, a flashlight, a tour of a coffee plantation, and a trip to a waterfall. The only thing I needed was the transportation, but what can you do? 

Ijen looks moonlike

Ijen looks moonlike

The journey started at 12:30am when our group met to pile into three vehicles and drove the hour and a half up a very rough and winding road to the base of Ijen. On the way back we only had two vehicles, and I'm pretty sure we added a person. No idea what happened there, but it didn't surprise me in the least. One advantage of tour groups is that it's easy to meet people. I enjoyed everyone in our group. I met a fellow traveler from New Zealand, who shared my view on tours - along with many other subjects ranging from career choices to food and so much in between. So when we got our entrance tickets from our guide, Michael - although that can't actually be his name, we took off into the park and never looked back. Lost our group and our guide immediately. We were not upset about this. The path is easy and obvious. Plus there are a few hundred other people there to show you the way. We got into the crater before the largest group of tourists made it down and found a great spot for sunrise on the opposite side of the crater rim where it wasn't too crowded. Maybe we should be guides.

 

Kawah Ijen is famous for its blue flames and sulphur mining. Here's some science on the subject from a legit source. Kawah Ijen

Some freshly made sulphur

Some freshly made sulphur

As you hike down the crater in the middle of the night the smell of sulphur gets stronger. You can smell it through the gas mask. You can see blue flames flickering like a small candle far away. Closer still you can see the smoke cloud rising up from a small spot in the mountain below you. When the wind is right and the smoke clears you can see a weird yellow stain on the mountain. When you reach the bottom you are in such a crazy place. Being down there is like being on another planet. It is absolutely like nothing I have ever experienced, and it is impossible to compare to anything else.

A miner beneath the blue flame

A miner beneath the blue flame

First thing - stay out of the smoke cloud. Everybody knows this feeling. It's like sitting around a campfire. The smoke is usually in one direction but can change suddenly. It's kind of annoying. It's a little more annoying when the smoke is escaping volcanic gases. When the wind changes, the cloud engulfs you quickly. You just get low, close your eyes, try to breath as little as possible, and wait it out. Or you run like hell.

 

Secondly - the colors. Blue flames. Yellow rocks. The sulphur covers everything around in a thin layer of yellow dust. When you shine a light around it seems to glow. The colors are amazing, at least when you can see through the smoke and you're not suffocating.

 

Third - the weird mix of miners and tourists. There are local miners who are down there trying to work. They have handmade baskets that they use to haul up to 200 pounds of sulphur up 1,000 ft out of the crater. They make a couple trips down into the crater each day. They must get annoyed with all the tourists there. I would be. If I had a job. And tourist were in the way of it. There are no rules down in the crater. You can go right up to where the sulphur is being mined and break a piece off to take home with you. Just try to stay out of the way of the miners, who are sometimes not even wearing gas masks, and their rebar for breaking off large chunks of sulphur. I know they are annoyed when they are carrying 200 pounds of sulphur on their shoulder and they have to wait for a young lady who is very slowly trying to climb her first mountain and documenting it with selfies the entire way. Or maybe that was just me.

A basket full of sulphur

A basket full of sulphur

The sunrise view from the crater rim was pretty great. Again, it looked like a completely different world. There was little to no vegetation, the whole mountain was covered in a crusty soil, it is all gray except for that yellow spot, there are very defined water erosion marks, and there is a crater lake that is an unnatural looking blue color. So cool.

Hiking around the crater

Hiking around the crater

From Ijen I was off to my next volcano, but I had an unexpected pit stop on the way. I was trying to sleep on the five hour bus ride to Probolinggo, partly because I woke up at 12:30am and partly so I didn't have to keep giving money to the constantly revolving group of musicians jumping on and off the bus playing guitar, when a curious young girl sat next to me. Her name was Silvia and she spoke English quite well. She was smart, talkative, friendly, and seemed much older than she was. Within two minutes of meeting me she invited me to stay with her and her family for the night. I had no place to stay yet and experiencing life with the locals is the best way to learn about a place, of course I immediately said yes. Indonesians have been so friendly and such gracious hosts.

Silvia, Rasya, and I

Silvia, Rasya, and I

We had a good night with dinner and conversation. Silvia is eager to learn English better, although she is one of the best English speaking locals I've met in Indonesia. She invited me to her school the next morning. I was in a hurry to climb two more volcanos in the next four day before I left the country, but of course I couldn't turn down her invitation. And I'm so glad I didn't because it was such a cool and unique experience.

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We arrived at school the next morning. There were about 100 girls all gathered in the central area of school doing their daily morning prayers. They told me to wait as they prepared. They were very worried about what they were going to do to prepare for the foreigner. I felt nervous. I wasn't exactly sure what they expected from me, and I wanted to make a good impression and be a good ambassador. Like all of America was counting on me. Don't worry Obama. I think I did alright.

 

I did go well actually. I ended up having a lot of fun. Silvia translated for me. Maybe she just made me sound better than I actually did. It was really cool to be able to stand in front of a whole group of young people and talk about travel, learning, cultures, and religion. I don't know how much I was understood. At one point they just wanted me to sing. They requested Katy Perry or Justin Bieber. I went with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Of course lots of photos were taken and everybody was happy. Eventually they had to kick me out so people could actually learn.

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I hopped in a large van going to Cemoro Lawang about 11:30am knowing I needed to climb Mount Bromo and make my way to Ranupani that same day. It was actually very doable and would have been really easy had I not made one dumb decision. More on that later but first Mount freakin Bromo.

An offering to the sacred volcano

An offering to the sacred volcano

The "hike" is really not much at all, but the view, the sound, the whole experience once again left me feeling like I have no idea how this planet works. It was such a different place. You learn about volcanos and geology and science and the layers of the earth in school from elementary to college. But being right there on the rim of a volcano that is ROARING from a hole in the mountain just below while smoke is pouring out just left me speechless. Throw out all the college level geology lectures and the elementary school science fair model volcanos. Actually being there and seeing it will blow your mind. I was seriously concerned that this thing was about to explode like every doomsday end of the world movie you've ever seen. Those sci-fi movies don't seem so sci-fi to me anymore. 

Looking into Mt Bromo

Looking into Mt Bromo

And the area surrounding Mount Bromo was just as fascinating. Bromo is surrounded by the Sea of Sand, an immense flat desert looking area. The whole area looks like Mars, but a little less red. Surrounding the Sea of Sand is the crater wall. So Bromo, the Sea of Sand, and this entire Mars looking environment  are inside one HUGE crater. Standing on the crater rim at one end, you can't even see the other side. Indonesia amazes again.

There's a line tree way out there in the middle of this barren land

There's a line tree way out there in the middle of this barren land

My next stop was Semeru, another active volcano and the tallest point on the island of Java. Leo and Alex, my French friends from Rinjani, wanted me to climb Semeru and see if the French flag they planted on top was still there. By this time I was very curious myself and wanted to go find this flag. The two day climb to Semeru's summit starts in Ranupani. Ranupani is a small village located about 11 miles from Cemoro Lawang, where you go to visit Mount Bromo. This is when I made the decision that I came to regret pretty quickly. I decided to walk to Ranupani. So I left the fiery Mount Bromo and set out for the other side of the crater, across the Sea of Sand. (Sounds like a movie, right? A bad one at least.)

A horse is a good way to travel

A horse is a good way to travel

I proudly passed up several offers from motorbike taxis for rides. It was nice out - until I got just out of range of the taxis. Then it started to rain. Slowly at first. So I continued. Then harder. I had gone too far. Nothing to do but keep going. I ended up walking 3 hours in steady rain. No trees for protection. It was wet. It was muddy. It was uphill. It was downhill. It was cold. It was foggy. And by the end, it was dark. I should have taken the lift, buy hey, I saved $5.

The Sea of Sand

The Sea of Sand

I arrived at the only joint in town. The only bed they had available was way overpriced. I tried to look pathetic, which was my normal look at the moment since I was soaking wet and shivering, and remark about how high the price was and ask for other options. In the end I was too cold and tired to argue over price with someone who doesn't speak the same language. That's exhausting enough when you are dry and rested. Just a fail all the way around, but that'll happen sometimes when you're on the road for so long.

 

I wasn't too upset about the hiking in the rain and the overpriced bed. I've been there and done that before. What made me really regret this decision was the next day. A lot of my clothes were still pretty wet. They wouldn't dry because it was still foggy and drizzling on and off all night and the next morning. I waited as long as possible, and the weather cleared for a minute before the mountain was engulfed in clouds again and it started spitting. If I had a fresh start at the mountain that day with dry clothes, boots, and gear, I would have made a run at it. But with wet clothes that I knew would not dry and only a hammock and bivvy for the cold night, I made the executive decision to let Mother Nature win this one. Sometimes she's a bitch, but you gotta respect her.

Meeting more friends before leaving Java and Indonesia  

Meeting more friends before leaving Java and Indonesia  

So instead I spent the next two nights laying in a plush bed in a fancy hotel watching movies, eating, and enjoying hot showers and air conditioning. You win some, you lose some. But if this is losing, I'll be alright.

A temple at the base of Mount Bromo

A temple at the base of Mount Bromo

My time on Lombok

I spent longer on the island of Lombok than anticipated - in a good way. It's nice to have unexpected adventures pop up. It would be sort of boring if everything went according to plan. Lombok is a small island with a big mountain. It is a place of spicy food and where a horse and buggy is not an uncommon means of transportation.

A view of the three Gili Islands and Mount Agung across the Lombok Straight

A view of the three Gili Islands and Mount Agung across the Lombok Straight

I met Poan on the ferry from Padangbai, Bali to Lembar, Lombok. He is a friendly guy that can speak a little English. That's all you can really ask for in this part of the world. He was excited to share Lombok culture with me, and I was excited to learn. We talked and played a couple of games of chess on the ferry. I guess chess is pretty universal. We exchanged information while having a meal, the first of many delicious and spicy meals I had on the island, and agreed to meet again later. Then I was off to Senaru to start my trek up Mount Rinjani.

 

Senaru is situated at the bottom of the this very large volcano. I left the guesthouse in Senaru about 8am the next morning and started walking. I wasn't totally sure where the trailhead was, but I was told there was only one way up. So I went up. Most people have a guide and porter and tour group they climb with. I went on my own, carrying all my own equipment and food. I like going at my own pace, and saving over a million Indonesian Rupiah is a bonus too. And this ain't my first mountain rodeo so I figured I would be alright.

Sunset on the first night up on Rinjani

Sunset on the first night up on Rinjani

 I met a couple of French dudes who were up there on their own too. Alex and Leo. We formed our own tour group for the night. We were probably the most popular one too after we started a camp fire to keep us all warm in the chilly mountain wind. My friends weren't sure we would be able to start a fire in such a windy and exposed camp, but I didn't live in the mountains for five and a half months for nothing. They were impressed with my fire making skills. When someone would come to join us and comment on how surprised they were that we had a fire going, Alex would point to me and say, "He's from America, anything is possible."

We slowly made our way up the mountain that first day and everything went well, even when we heard the eruption.

Leo and Alex on the way up Rinjani

Leo and Alex on the way up Rinjani

 It sounded like super thunder if super thunder were a thing. But the skies were clear and there wasn't an airport nearby where a large jumbo jet might be flying over us to land. I just dismissed it. Living in Huntsville, Alabama, you hear loud noises all the time. Redstone Arsenal is nearby and is always exploding bombs and testing rockets so loud explosions are ordinary. Next time I'm on a volcano though, I should remember that I'm not in Alabama anymore.

 

I guess I got lucky. We must have been upwind. Other parts of the island reported ash in the air, and they closed down the major airport in Bali. Two other volcanos erupted nearby around the same time too. I had no idea about any of this and neither did anyone around me it seemed, even the locals. We all just kept climbing up the mountain to camp. A wise man who got a B- in Geology once told me that if you survive the first twenty minutes of an eruption, you're probably good.

A monkey checking out the view

A monkey checking out the view

 At camp we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset and our first views into the crater at the very recently active volcano. Here we learned that it had just erupted, and it was obvious when looking at it. The volcano was smoking, and the left side of the cone was blown away. You could see where the trail of lava flowed. It had cooled off now and was black, but there was smoke still coming off of it all the way down from the cone to the lake that surrounded the volcano. It was an amazing place to be. A smoking volcano on my left and a gorgeous sunset over a distant Bali on my right.

 

I woke up in a crowded tent of three just before sunrise. We packed up and started one of the best days of hiking I have ever had. It rivals the day I hiked the Northern Presidentials in New Hampshire. Hard to choose between them. We watched the sun rise at the crater rim then headed down into the crater for the lake. The views were other worldly. Very new to me. The sun rose and light filled the crater. We went deeper into this bowl. The walls rose high and steep on all sides. The volcano got bigger and bigger. The lake grew into a sea. When you reach the bottom, you realize how big this entire scene is.

The active volcano in the Rinjani crater

The active volcano in the Rinjani crater

 Once you reach the bottom of the crater you are treated to hot springs. Best hot springs I've seen by far. The water is a weird opaque green color, but the temperature is heavenly. The pool is deep and there are perfect rocks for relaxing on. There are two waterfalls feeding this natural hot tub, and you can even jump from the top into the pool below. It is a perfect place to relax after a long hike, and it takes some serious mental toughness to leave. Especially when you are headed back uphill, even if it is a beautiful uphill.

The hot springs at the Rinjani crater

The hot springs at the Rinjani crater

 At the second night's camp I was on my own. My French friends took a different trail off the mountain. I camped high up on the mountain ridge. The summit was seemingly just next to me. I set up my hammock and went to bed early after watching the sunset and an impromptu yoga session with a Kiwi and some Canadians. My hammock set up kept me warmer than I expected all night on a very windy and exposed ridge. I just peeked out a couple of times to look at the stars. A crazy infinite amount of stars.

Walking out of the crater

Walking out of the crater

 Around 2am I heard people start rustling and getting ready to make the hike up the summit for sunrise. During the day I could tell there were a lot of people on the mountain, but at night when everyone had a light and they were traveling in one line up the mountain, it was shocking to see just how many people were there. It seemed like there was a line of lights stretching from the summit all the way back to camp. Like a line of people five miles long. Obviously I tried to beat them all up to the top. I left around 3am.

Camping just below the summit of Gunung Rinjani

Camping just below the summit of Gunung Rinjani

 Hiking up Rinjani was like hiking on a beach that was somehow tilted 60 degrees up. The distance was not so far, but the terrain made it impossible to move with any speed. The goal with each step was simply to move forward and not slide down the sand or ash or dirt or whatever it was farther than you stepped up. Over the coarse of the two and a half hours it took to summit, I passed most people who started before me and was maybe the 20th person at the top at 5:30am. By the 6:30 sunrise there was about 75 people up on the small summit. Quite a bit more than I would have preferred but at least we could huddle penguin style for warmth. It was freezing up there. The best view was the shadow of the mountain itself stretching across the crater and land and sea and clouds behind it.

 

The way down was much quicker. It was very much like skiing. Sliding down on the sand and rocks a few feet with every step. You could get going pretty fast.

 

The only negatives in regards to Rinjani where the amount of people on the mountain and worse, the amount of trash on the mountain. There was trash everywhere. All the way up and all the way down. It was sad to see such careless pollution in such a naturally beautiful place. I don't know who's to blame - tourists, guides, porters, locals. Probably all. It looks terrible, and it's unhealthy for the animals, environment, and people. Pack it out, people.

Sunset on Gili T. 

Sunset on Gili T. 

 After the trek I was ready to relax, and the Gili Islands were the perfect place for that. I spent two nights on Gili Trawangan, the largest of three small islands that make up the Gili's just off the northwest coast of Lombok. There are no cars or motorbikes on the island. You have to watch out for horses though. I stayed in the center of the island which was perfect because I could walk to the east coast to watch the sunrise in the morning and head to the west coast for a nice sunset in the evening. Food was delicious and plentiful. And Bintang is actually a pretty decent beer. I napped on the beach in my hammock, walked around the entire island a couple times, unsuccessfully tried to find some sea turtles while snorkeling, ate lots of food, and enjoyed a few beers at beachside restaurants. It was a lovely couple of days.

A swing in the sea in Gili Trawangan

A swing in the sea in Gili Trawangan

I got in touch with Poan during my beach vacation and made plans to meet and go spend some time with him and his family in his hometown of Gantis. He showed up in Senggigi, Lombok, on a motorbike. I jumped on with my full pack on my back and we set off on the hour and a half ride to central Lombok. It was fun whipping in and out of traffic.

Poan on the ferry to Lombok

Poan on the ferry to Lombok

 The way people drive in Southeast Asia seems crazy and dangerous at first but it works well. In America they teach defensive driving. Here they live it or they get seriously hurt. I promise you that no one is texting while driving, and there is not much speeding going on. Maybe it's even a little safer than the structured, organized, make you fall asleep at the wheel kind of driving that we have in the USA. I don't know. Just a thought.

Gili Trawangan

Gili Trawangan

 I spent the next three days with Poan and his family. They welcomed me in and treated me so well. It was really nice to be part of a family after being on my own for a while. I stayed at Poan's mother's house with Poan, his wife, his mom, his niece, and lots of chickens.

Tobacco: Lombok's #1 crop

Tobacco: Lombok's #1 crop

 I was well off the tourist path here in Gantis so everywhere I went people were very curious about me. I think word spread pretty quickly in this small community that there was a foreigner around. Wherever I went there were always kids hiding around the corner trying to sneak a peak at me. Sometimes I would try to wave and they would giggle and hide. If I tried to go over and say hi they would run away. My favorite was when I would quickly turn and take a photo of them. They would run away laughing hysterically. After some convincing they would eventually become brave enough to gather around for a selfie. They would get really excited when I would show them the picture afterwards and then they would push and shove to get to the front in the next photo. They were pretty damn cute.

Cricket fighting

Cricket fighting

 It's funny being around a group of people and knowing that they are talking about you but having no idea what they are saying. They all looked directly at me and spoke loudly and quickly and I just sat and smiled. They would laugh or come up and touch me. Again I just smiled. Through my translator, Poan, I got that the consensus was that I was very handsome and I had a big nose. So I guess I'll take it.

Lombok coffee and sweet corn - a simple breakfast

Lombok coffee and sweet corn - a simple breakfast

 All the food we ate was simple and traditional Lombok food. There were chickens roasted over coals from a fire. There was beef that was kind of like fajita but a little drier. There was bean soup, coconut soup, boiled eggs, squid, fish, noodles, and of course always rice. For every meal there was also a traditional Lombok "salsa".  It was crushed tomatoes, onions, and chilis. Always served with cucumbers. It was really good and really spicy. I put it on everything as did all the locals. Everyone was constantly worried the food was too spicy because Americans don't like spicy food they said. Well not this Mexican.

Curtain waterfalls

Curtain waterfalls

 The first night we all had dinner they all laughed at my eating technique. We all sat on a mat on the ground and ate with our hands. It definitely takes some skill to eat with your hands and apparently I was doing it all wrong. I thought it was okay. I mean it worked well enough to eat all the food I could reach. After a couple of days of practice I think I got better based on the ability to get food to my mouth and the amount of laughing at me around the circle. I still prefer my spork though.

Handmade sarongs

Handmade sarongs

 I had a good time and met some nice people in Poan's town. The last day there we were able to rent a truck to take the whole family out to a park near Mount Rinjani with a really beautiful waterfall. They brought a huge lunch for a picnic by the waterfall where we swam and hung out all afternoon. I'm glad everyone got to get out. I'm not sure how often they get to tour around their own beautiful island. They definitely don't ride in a vehicle too often. One little girl even got carsick on the way to the park. Once there everyone had a great time, and it was so good to see.

My Lombok, Indonesia, fam

My Lombok, Indonesia, fam

My new Indonesian family kept telling me to come back anytime and that I was always welcome. And I believe them. Maybe one day I will. On my honeymoon is what they kept suggesting.

Sunrise on top of Rinjani

Sunrise on top of Rinjani

The Wonderous Underground River

I didn't see it. But not for lack of trying. The Underground River is one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World!" I don't know how many seven wonders there are, but at least 49. This wonder is located near Sabang Beach on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. It is an extensive cave system that is navigable for miles and miles into the limestone mountain. This is the reason most people go to Sabang Beach. I went there to climb Mount Bloomfield, which I found out upon arrive was "closed".

Sabang Beach

Sabang Beach

So when I was on top of the "closed" mountain I saw all the boats leaving Sabang Beach and the route they were taking to the entrance of the Underground River. It wasn't too far at all. I thought I should go see the cave entrance. I mean I had seen it on postcards all over the place, and I was SO close. One of the Forty Nine Wonders, right?! 

Top of Mount Bloomfield

Top of Mount Bloomfield

The most common method of seeing the Underground River is by booking a tour. Tours leave every 25 seconds from Sabang Beach. There are hundreds of colorful little boats to take up to eight people at a time. It's hard to walk too far in Sabang without someone asking you if you want to book a tour, unless you are actually trying to get some information on something. Then no one is around. Maybe my siesta time and their siesta time just did not line up. Anyway, the tours are pretty expensive as you might expect from a Wonder of the World. It seemed a little pricey for me for a tour that is mostly in the dark. So I let that one go by. Strike 1 - looking.

Busy Downtown Sabang

Busy Downtown Sabang

I still wanted to go see the cave entrance, but I didn't want to pay for the tour. Simple, walk along the coast until I reach the cave. It was a good plan, and I might have succeeded, but I'll never know. I hiked for about 45 minutes past the beach along the jagged, rocky coastline. It was raining a little bit, but that never bothered me anyway. Things were going okay. A little scrambling. A little climbing. When I was trying to get around a big crevasse, I saw a monkey looking down at me. Probably thinking about what a tail-less idiot I looked like. 

Eventually it started raining really hard. I reached a spot where there was no other way than a short three foot jump from one rock to another rock with nothing but the sea below. I thought about it. On a bright sunny day I would have done it, but in a downpour with no one else around... Not worth it. Plus who knows if there was an impassable cliff just around the corner of the next rock. Or maybe that was the last obstacle before the Underground River cave entrance. I'll never know, but I gave it my best shot. Strike 2 - swing and a miss.

On my final day in Sabang I woke up early to hike the Jungle Trail. This is a simple three mile trail that leads directly to the entrance of the Underground River. There is a small fee to hike the trail, but since I failed the previous day I felt like I needed to get to that cave. The trail was nice. It passed some cool rock formations and caves. The last bit of the trail is a boardwalk and staircase through a karst forest. The rocks are really cool here. I was admiring all the vines and rocks and daydreaming about what I would have for lunch when I passed a sign that said I was only 500 meters from the Underground River. Hell yea! I was practically there. Then I saw a monkey.

Caves on the Jungle Trail

Caves on the Jungle Trail

 It was a Long Tailed Macaque. It was a mother, though I did not know that yet. She was sitting on the railing to the stairway that is the only way down to the cave. We saw each other at the same time, I was walking toward her so she began walking towards me. Not in a playful and curious kind of way, but not in an attacking rage either. Still facing her I backed my way up the stairs a little bit. She returned to her post on the stair railing.

Casual grooming

Casual grooming

I was trying to figure out how to pass her. Actually I was just hoping she would go climb a tree or do monkey things somewhere. Then I saw her baby climbing up the railing. Truthfully it wasn't a baby monkey. More like her teenage kid monkey. She started grooming him. I was still waiting. I crept in closer to take pictures; she would look at me every once in a while.

 I eventually got close enough that I saw the father monkey. My mistake. The papa saw me and started charging me with that attacking rage look in his eye. There was no backing away slowly this time. I turned my ass and ran. I peaked backed. The monkey was way faster than me. I yelled "Hey! Hey!" in a probably very embarrassing way although I can't really remember. I kept running. I peaked back again. The monkey was stopped five feet behind me, making some terribly frightening noise with his canines out. Yea, dude. Point made. Strike 3 - I'm out of there.

Not All Mountain Views and Honeybuns II

I've written a blog somewhat similar to this while in a Howard Johnson in Daleville, Virginia, USA. Now I am in a hostel in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines, a little more than a year later.

An El Nido beach

An El Nido beach

I can't say I blame my body. The weird food, the physical strain of climbing mountains and kayaking bays, the mental stress of never being quite sure I'm going in the right direction. I knew it would happen. It's inevitable for long term travelers visiting foreign places. You will get sick.

A personal sized cove

A personal sized cove

El Nido is such as beautiful place. Maybe even more beautiful that Daleville, Virginia. But the view I've seen the most has been the underside of the bunk bed above me. At least no one is up there adding more stress over the quality of bunk bed construction in the Philippines.

Somewhere around Daleville, Virginia.  

Somewhere around Daleville, Virginia.  

It has seriously all hit me at once. The day I arrived in El Nido I got a sore throat and a trumpet for a nose. I pushed on and went kayaking the next day. Add sunburn and a sore upper body to the list. I thought I would be smart and rest the entire third day. I only left the hostel to go into town to get some food for lunch. After that I had my first case of prolonged upset stomach and diarrhea.

Some beach

Some beach

There is supposed to be a beautiful beach with an amazing sunset view just a mile from here. You know I can't turn down a good sunset, but it's my last night in El Nido and I can't work up the strength to make it. I'm afraid I will faint and shit my pants. Hopefully in that order.

Clear, clear water from the kayak

Clear, clear water from the kayak

I love going to new places and seeing amazing sights, but in the words of the great Snoop Dogg, "Pimping ain't easy." For every sunrise on a mountain top there is a five hour bus ride with zero room, a stay on a hard bunk in a hostel, a cold shower if you're lucky, and a climb up a mountain in the dark. Beautiful beach views aren't free either. More crowded buses, sweaty nights with no air conditioning, bunk mates snoring, and sanitation worries.

The sea eating away the cliffs provide perfect shady rest spots for a kayak

The sea eating away the cliffs provide perfect shady rest spots for a kayak

There's always the home sickness too. Constantly being in a strange place can take its toll on you. Nothing is simple. Everything is different. It's hard. You wish you were back home with people you know and can understand.

But it's the path I chose, and there are so many more views to be had.

 

UPDATE: I wrote this a couple of days ago when I was laying in bed sick. Feeling better in Indonesia now!

The Most Beautiful Island

So the plan for this trip is to go find some of the most beautiful places in the world. Things don't usually go according to plan, but in the case of Batanes, it was flawless.

Mount Iraya  

Mount Iraya  

Batanes is a chain of ten tiny islands in the far northern reaches of the Philippines, about a two hour boat ride south of Taiwan. Only three of the ten islands are inhabited. I stayed on Batan, the largest of the islands.

Lunch spot

Lunch spot

After a shaky landing in a small plane, the first thing you notice is the prominent mountain on one end of the island. It's a dormant volcano whose summit is usually covered in clouds which just adds to the mystique. The colors you see in Batanes are simple and beautiful. Green grass, blue sky, green mountains, blue sea, green trees, copper roofs, white clouds, stone rocks, white lighthouses, and orange sunrises. Cows spot the interior rolling hills and beaches spot the coastline.

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We stayed at My Father's Inn, a small homestay. Dong and Jhing are the most amazing hosts. It was within walking distance to the airport. The airport was really just a small open building next to a runway in a field at the base of the mountain. We were in the town of Basco, the capital of Batanes. There is a post office and a police station. There are about five towns on the island of Batan and none are much bigger than a small neighborhood. Biking around town, motor or pedal, is the preferred method of transportation. Maybe that is because the island is so beautiful people want to slow down and take in the scenery. Maybe it's because the roads are too narrow for much else. Either way, the roads are few and all concrete making it easy to get around the island.

Basco and the lighthouse in the distance

Basco and the lighthouse in the distance

I was there for two full days. In that time I went around the entire island. I saw it from every angle and never once did I have a bad view. I could seriously drive to a random spot on the island, close my eyes, spin in a circle taking pictures, and I would come out with amazing photos.

The sea turning a deep blue before the storm

The sea turning a deep blue before the storm

Being a small isolated chain of islands, the food in Batanes was local, fresh, and fantastic. There were several meals of crab, lobster, and blue marlin. These are the staple foods of Batanes. Not a bad trio. The crab was Coconut Crab which is found sparingly around coasts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They are the largest land dwelling crab and primarily feed on coconuts, making them extra delicious. There are regulations to protect these crabs from being over hunted and exported because they have gone locally extinct in many places. I guess these rules did not apply to locals because we ate a ton of it. The blue marlin was found everywhere too. I ate it several different ways including the Philippine version of ceviche. There was a point when I had a large chunk of lobster tail I had just pried from a whole lobster in one hand and a San Miguel beer in the other and I was sitting next to a seriously beautiful beach. This was a great place to eat.

Coconut crab

Coconut crab

The people are relaxed and friendly, like most islanders. At lunch on the beach one day, I met one of my favorite people ever. His name is William. He's a salt and pepper long haired, scraggly bearded Filipino. He's always smiling through his front bottom teeth - because he had no front top teeth. He's in his early sixties and very fit. He biked to the beach where we had lunch. He said his grandmother showed him a picture of the Panama Canal when he was younger and asked if he would ever see it. I that point he decided he would make it to Panama one day. He made his way across the Pacific by boat to Los Angeles where he saw the Hollywood sign. He continued south to Panama and eventually reached the Panama Canal. On his way back to the Philippines, his ship sailed to New Zealand and Australia. He said he wanted to see if he could make it in another country. He jumped off the boat with his passport and an extra pair of underwear and swam to the shore. He lived in Australia for 12 years illegally before he was caught during a routine traffic stop and deported. Twelve years is a pretty good run. He was a professional boxer for about three rounds before he was knocked the fuck out during a match on live television. He talked about the women he loved and the people he had met. He loved the peacefulness of the island. He was happy and healthy. What else could you ask for?

Waves crashing on super sharp rocks

Waves crashing on super sharp rocks

There's a shop on the island called The Honesty Coffee Shop. It is always open and stocked with coffee, snacks, shirts, wigs, whatever. No one tends the shop. There is a money box on the counter. Take whatever you like. Pay for whatever you take. Just another example of how beautiful this place is - the people, the beaches, the mountains, the hills.

The Honesty Coffee Shop

The Honesty Coffee Shop

Everywhere is so different. It's difficult to compare one place to another, but it's hard to believe I will find a more beautiful place than this. I'll keep trying though.

"Come again anytime!"   - this other cow

"Come again anytime!" 

- this other cow

Small Town Philippines

Tokyo, Japan, and Dolores, Philippines, are separated by a four hour flight and then an eight hour drive. I am not sure that you can be anywhere in the world, travel 12 hours, and be in two more drastically different places than Tokyo and Dolores.

One corner of the park in the center of Dolores

One corner of the park in the center of Dolores

Dolores is in the rural, mountainous northern province of Abra on the main island of Luzon. Abra means open. They call this province Abra because they had to cut a path through the mountains to open up the area for people to settle. Once you hit the mountains, the drive is beautiful, as long as you can dodge all the oncoming motorbikes and buses. Seriously, the money and time that they spend on paint to make the lines in the road is just a waste. The lines mean nothing. The road to Dolores goes through several towns of various sizes and crowds. There are plenty of people selling food along the way so you won't need to worry about going hungry. And there are plenty of people stopping to relieve themselves on the side of the road so you won't need to worry about finding a toilet.

The tunnel leading into Abra

The tunnel leading into Abra

Dolores is a few blocks big. You can walk the whole town from river to outer streets in a couple hours. Even less time if you run. At the center of town there is a square park lined with old trees on all sides whose trunks are bigger than elephants. There is a large pavilion in the the park with a tall metal roof covering a stage and a concrete basketball court. Basketball is the game of choice in Dolores and all the Philippines. I met a Golden State Warriors fan who broke the news of Kevin Durant's move to me. During one afternoon I played basketball with some teenage kids. I was taller, but they were better. There are other events going on in the park depending on the time of day. I saw a group of women sitting in a large circle having a meeting one early morning. I saw tables set out banquet style one evening. I saw young school kids passing through trying to take the longest way possible to class late one morning. There are always people hanging out in the park, usually sitting on their motorbikes, and there are always people selling food on the streets lining the park. It's the center of life here.

Kids playing basketball at the pavilion.  

Kids playing basketball at the pavilion.  

The buildings are concrete; the roofs are metal. There is a noticeably poor part of town. There are more people selling snacks and sodas out of the shops set up as the front area of their house than there are people to buy these things. There is a rural health clinic with a queue of people always. There are dogs, chickens, and goats roaming around, and they are all friendly.

A welcoming entrance to a local house.  

A welcoming entrance to a local house.  

If you don't want to go to the market, the market will come to you. Everyday begins with a guy riding around in a motorbike at 5:45am selling freshly baked sweet bread called pan de sal. It is worth getting up for. People continue going around town with baskets balanced on their heads or motorbikes all day selling various things. While relaxing outside the house at various times we bought pan de sal, bananas, dressed whole frogs, fried fish on a stick, cooked bamboo chute, fried plantain rolls called toron, ice cream, and lottery tickets. All the food was delicious, and the lottery tickets were a winner.

Anybody need some rice? 

Anybody need some rice? 

I'm not exactly sure how the lottery works, I didn't want to get too deep into the underground gambling world of Dolores, but the basics are this: They have two local drawings a day. People go around collecting numbers and money for the each drawing. You choose two numbers from 1 to 36 and pay ten pesos. If they hit, you get a nice payout.

Grilled fish and San Miguel's  

Grilled fish and San Miguel's  

All meals consisted of rice and meat. There were few vegetables and most of the time they were just mixed in with the meat. As far as eating etiquette goes, it was either all hands or fork and spoon. The spoon in your right hand for eating and the fork in the left for cutting and moving food onto the spoon. No knives. 

Fresh frogs we bought and cooked for lunch. 

Fresh frogs we bought and cooked for lunch. 

The people were intrigued. They definitely don't see foreigners very often. Walking around town I got lots of stares, smiles, and a few limited English greetings. Everyone was friendly, but shy. I pulled out a hacky sack in the park and messed around with it by myself for a while. A group of kids stood watching from afar. I motioned to try to get them to come join but they just giggled and turned away, only to come back and watch some more.

The long walk to school

The long walk to school

We stayed with my step father's family. A big family. They were so kind and generous. They refused to let us go two hours without something delicious to eat. I felt bad to ever turn them down so I probably gained ten pounds while there. They showed us around the area and helped me learn some of the language. They always made sure that we had everything we needed. Each night they welcomed me around the table with local San Miguel beer or the local drink of choice, Emperador brandy. The circle would be anywhere between 3 to 12 men sitting around the table passing around one shot glass, one bottle of brandy, and one glass of water. I didn't know what they were saying much of the time, but there was a lot of laughter.

A beautiful nearby hike to the top of this mountain with three crosses.  

A beautiful nearby hike to the top of this mountain with three crosses.  

I really enjoyed this small Philippine town. Food was fresh. People were friendly. Trees were huge. Rivers and mountains were nearby. And the rain every afternoon provided the perfect setting for a nap. 

"Come back anytime!"   - this cow

"Come back anytime!" 

- this cow

19 hours in Japan

Crossing the international date line is a weird thing. I'm pretty sure I was in the daylight sun for about 22 consecutive hours, but who knows. I didn't even know what day it was when I landed - July 2? July 3? America's birthday? Should I be shooting off fireworks? The answer to that one is no, not in Tokyo. Turns out it was 1pm on some day, and we were leaving at 9am the next day. The countdown had begun. 19 hours to go.

The Narita airport was easy to figure out. Plenty of English, lots of signs, and the restrooms had your choice of toilets - western style or squatty potty. I won't tell you which one I chose. After buying the wrong train ticket and given new ones by the kind attendant, we were off to Tokyo. 18 hours to go.

The Tokyo metro area train system is not the most straightforward train system I have navigated. And it wasn't really the language that was the problem. There were just so many lines going in so many directions, and the stations we not all that intuitive. Sometimes you had to go out to the street to get to another station with the same name to transfer from one line to another. The train maps were no help. The best method we found was to annoyingly ask every worker, piece together all their different broken English, and hope it leads you the right way. It usually did. We did get better at navigating this huge train system by the end of our stay. I guess practicing something makes you better at it. So after a long train ride of rice paddies turning to bamboo forests turning to small residential neighborhoods turning to a sprawling metropolis, we finally made it to Tokyo. 17 hours to go. 

I have no idea what this sign means.  

I have no idea what this sign means.  

Our first stop was Shibuya Crossing - a Times Square-esque intersection in the middle of a commercial district in the heart of Tokyo. We left the station and took a left. We should have taken a right. I definitely recommend getting a map of Tokyo before leaving the airport. Slightly lost, hungry, tired, sleepy, and clueless of the time or date, we stopped for noodles. 16.5 hours to go. 

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

I think we could have made a better decision on our noodle spot, but we were very hungry and pretty tired - aka hangry. I ordered some soup from the menu. The noodles themselves were really good. Thick, soft, fresh. The broth and other ingredients were lacking, but I blame the person who ordered the food. It's like he or she randomly picked something off a list. I suggest going somewhere with pictures on the windows or menu. It makes ordering what you want so much easier. 15 hours to go. 

Japanese noodles with pork. Delicious pork.  

Japanese noodles with pork. Delicious pork.  

With new energy we found Shibuya Crossing. Every couple of minutes all the traffic lights turn red and the walk signals light up at every corner. Then hundreds of people lining the street swarm the intersection trying to get to the other side like a salmon who can't figure out if he is going upstream or not. It's an organized chaos that ends as quickly as it begins. It's an impressive sight to see, and who has the best view? Starbucks does. And that makes perfect sense in this bright, crowded, busy commercial Tokyo district. 13 hours to go. 

Back on the train, headed to Akihabara. This is the anime district in Tokyo. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Am I right ladies? This is Tokyo in all its fascinating weirdness. Six story tall buildings full of comics, movies, books, posters, curtains, mugs, calendars, and anything else you can think of with beautifully drawn semi soft core porn cartoon characters on them. There were people of all ages, and there were fashion choices for all. It was interesting to see, and I'm sure if it wasn't 9pm on a Sunday (figured out the day by this point) it would have been even more interesting. 12 hours to go.  

Is this appropriate? I guess so.  

Is this appropriate? I guess so.  

After our fill of scantily clad cartoons, we headed to the Tsukiji district. This is the fish market district on the east side of Tokyo on the water. We had heard of the Com Com Manga Internet cafe with reclining chairs that you could rent for 3 hours of sleep, just long enough to rest before the 1:30am alarm to get to the fish market for the tuna auction. After some very hard work finding that Internet cafe on the second floor of a small building, we are told that minors are not allowed to stay there. Since we had my 15 year old step brother with us we had to find other options. 11 hours to go. 

We settle for a nearby hotel too tired to search for a better deal. The Tokyu Hotel. The rooms were small and clean, and it was nice to be able to take a shower. We didn't realize how great of a location this place was in until the morning. Right next to the fish market. Street vendors just outside the door with fresh seafood from the market. Perfect. I barely had time to set my alarm before crashing into bed for 3 solid hours of sleep. 7.5 hours to go. 

Left the hotel at about 2am. We found a queue of people, almost all foreigners, outside a small building near the fish market. Only 120 people are allowed into the auction each morning. We were probably around number 30 in line. They gave us neon vests and let us inside. The next 3 hours consisted of waiting in a small room of 120 people. And I do mean small room. It was not very comfortable or fun, but I did meet a few people and had some good conversations. They let us into the auction at 5:25am. 4 hours to go.  

Walking into the room with the giant tuna laid out all across the floor was cool - both literally and figuratively. There were about 100 very large, very  frozen tuna all around. The tails were cut off and a little flap was cut into the flesh so men could inspect the fish. Each man had a little pick axe and went around to each tuna poking it and cutting out a little piece from where the tail had been cut off. They would hold the little bit of tuna meat in their hand, judging it in their expert tuna ways, and then throw it away. None of them ate it. I was watching to see if they would. The auction itself was not as exciting as I hoped it would be. No yelling or fighting. Just a bell and then calm, rhythmic, almost Native American sounding chanting. The auction only lasted a couple minutes. 3.5 hours to go. 

Tuna inspection before the auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market

Tuna inspection before the auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market

As with most things, the food was the best part of the whole Tsukiji Market experience. We didn't have much time before we need to get to the airport so we walked through the market looking for a quick, fresh seafood breakfast.  As we were walking down a small side street a vendor was just opening up. The shop had a little grill out front with large shells piled high with different kinds of seafood - tuna, crab, squid, other? We pointed to one of those and the man began steaming it up. While he did that I grabbed a sea urchin from a tray laid out on the table. It was already cooked and had a spoon in it ready to go. It was my first time eating sea urchin. The inside was a burnt orange color, soft, mushy, rich, and sea tasting, but not overbearingly salty. I would have it again in a heartbeat. Once the steamed shell was ready we needed to hustle to the hotel so we ate on the run. Eating seafood on a shell with chopsticks while walking through a crowded Tokyo street at 6am without dropping a piece made me feel pretty good about myself. And the fact that the food was so amazing didn't hurt either. The tuna was my favorite. It was so fresh, perfectly steamed, warm, melt in your mouth, delicious. I don't know how else to describe it. 3.25 hours to go. 

Street sea urchin. Yum. 

Street sea urchin. Yum. 

We grabbed our bags from the hotel room and raced to the airport. This was our best train navigation yet. Which was a good thing because we didn't have much time to spare. Hopped on the skyline train to Narita just in time. 2.25 hours to go.   

Forty five minutes later we arrived at the airport with an hour and a half to spare. We checked in, grabbed a bite, and said goodbye to Japan as we boarded our flight to the Philippines. 

Arigato, Japan.  

Leaving on a Jet Plane

All my bags are packed; I'm ready to go. Standing here outside your door; hate to wake you up to say goodbye.... Ok I'll stop, but if you want more - click here.  

On top of Max Patch in North Carolina

On top of Max Patch in North Carolina

So 23 hours until I am on a plane headed out of the country. I've done everything I can do. No more preparing. Time to enjoy the day in the good ol' USA while I can. I'm going to be gone for many months, and I am going to miss it. I'm going to miss a lot. The food, the fireworks, the language, the general efficiency of being able to get shit done, but most of all the people - specifically people I know and love, but all the people too. I will miss it all.

But I am very excited to enter a world that I really know nothing about. No matter how much research you do, you really don't know much until you are there. There are so many things that I don't know that I don't know! There will be so many things to see and touch and taste and smell and hear. I think that covers all the senses. I have no idea what adventures I will get into, what people I will meet, or if I will like any of this. That is what is so excited. 

Pretty sure this was an illegally run shop out of an abandoned storage building somewhere in Tennesse or Virginia. It was awesome.

Pretty sure this was an illegally run shop out of an abandoned storage building somewhere in Tennesse or Virginia. It was awesome.

I'm excited to write about all these places and take as many pictures as possible. I want to give a you an idea of what these places are like. I want to understand the landscape, the architecture, the people, the food, the society. I know I won't really understand it in the short time that I will be at these places, but I want to do my best. 

Of course I am nervous as well. But as I have said before, doing anything worthwhile is a little scary. You can't let that stop you or you will never do anything worthwhile. I think that hiking the Appalachian Trail really helped me prepare for this journey. It's definitely a different kind of adventure, but lessons can still be applied. We faced adversity, we struggled, we had to deal with people, we didn't always know where we would be sleeping, we walked. I'm sure all of these things will come into play again. I'm more prepared and more confident this time around. 

If you are reading this, I hope that you keep in touch. You can always email me. Go to the homepage of this site and sign up for the email list to get updates. Send me your address, and I'll send you a postcard! Guaranteed! 

I'll talk to you from the other side of the world. Cheers. 

Grayson Highlands - Virginia

Grayson Highlands - Virginia

 

 

How are you doing this?

How are you not working for six months? How are you going on these adventures? How are you doing this? I wish I could do that. 

People ask me these things all the time. The answer is that I am simply prioritizing travel and adventure and experiences over other things. I'm choosing travel over owning a car, owning a house, eating something other than PB&J sandwiches for lunch, going to bars, having a big retirement account, starting a family. I am not doing anything that you couldn't do. It just comes down to the choices you make. Choices are tough.

I understand that not everybody should prioritize travel over everything else. If you have a child or a spouse then you have a commitment to put them at the top of your list. Although I have seen some adventuring families, and they are pretty bad ass, so it's not impossible. But outside of your commitments to other people, all your other priorities are negotiable. "I have a house." Sell it. "I have a car." Get rid of it. "I have a job." Good. Save up as much money as you can, pay off your debt, then quit and go see the world. "I can't do that." You could if you wanted to, but it doesn't sound like you do, so you're right. 

It's not easy. That's why most people don't do it. It's not easy to save money, pay off debt, leave a steady job for something completely unknown, or leave people you love for people you don't know yet. It's not easy to bike to work in a thunderstorm, eat ramen for dinner several nights in a row, choose not to go out to eat with friends, or work on the weekends. You have to be dedicated and know why you are doing what you are doing. 

I am lucky to be able to do what I am doing. But that's not to say that this just happened. You can influence your own luck. Most of luck is working hard, putting yourself in a good position, being prepared, and not being afraid to take a risk.

I've always worked hard. In school I always did all my work, studied when I needed to study, and made good grades. That put me in a good position to get a scholarship. At the University of Alabama I did the same thing and after getting turned down for several jobs I was hired for a co-op engineering position with the US Army. I did my job there, and the government hired me full time once I graduated.

I'm lucky to have met some amazing people in my life, but none of them did I meet by staying in my room watching Seinfeld reruns. You got to put yourself out there. You will meet some pretty terrible people too, but you will learn just as much from them. 

I took a risk by quitting my job, and I'm still not sure how it will turn out. Of course that makes me kind of nervous and afraid, but you can't let that stop you. Nothing great has ever happened without some risk involved. Fear always precedes greatness. 

The Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire is one of the few places in the world to find this flower - the Alpine Goldenrod

So in summary: I did well in school which allowed me to receive a scholarship and stay out of debt. I worked in a co-op position while in school and then was hired full time upon graduation. I saved money, managed money well, and lived within my means while working full time. I realized that sitting behind a desk all day was not making me happy, so I did something about it. 

You always have to live within your means, so as soon as I was not receiving a paycheck every two weeks my means of living went way down. Like living in a tent in the woods, way down. But I was prepared for that, and it was an amazing experience. I posted before that the entire thru hike cost me about $1000/month. If you show up to Springer Mountain with the right gear, three days worth of food, $5000, and nothing other than a phone bill every month, you can have a great time walking all the way to Maine. 

When I returned to Huntsville after my hike and a brief road trip out west, I began working as many hours at Mountain High Outfitters as I could just to cover my living expenses. Mountain High is a great place, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to work there and meet so many passionate people. Again I had to live within my means so I sold my car and bought a bike for transportation. I had forgotten how much fun riding a bike is! I managed to sustain and not eat up my savings. 

So now I am heading out on another adventure. I am not sure how much money it will cost, but I've learn how to live cheaply. Use your legs for transportation, don't over indulge in anything, eat local food, sleep in camp or hostels, entertain yourself with conversation, and see the free attractions like mountains, lakes, rivers, and oceans. It's actually really great. 

Sunrise in the Santa Fe National Forest

The Goal for my Trip

I think having goals is a good idea. Goals force me to think about what I want and help me figure out how to get it. Goals help me manage my time better. Either I am doing something productive towards achieving a goal, or I am not. And I am totally fine with not doing something productive as long as it is something worthwhile. Biking to the lake on a beautiful day to see good friends and have a couple beers is worthwhile; watching a marathon of "Top Shot" on the history channel is not. Goals feel really good to mark off the list after you accomplish them. 

So I thought about what my goal for my upcoming trip is going to be. I didn't want to be just wandering around Asia and Europe for no particular reason. I wanted to have an idea, plan, path,  .....goal. 

Intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the New York Long Trail

My favorite thing to do is walk and look around. Obviously. So I decided my goal is to see as many of the most beautiful sights throughout Asia and Europe as I can. The more walking the better. I love nature so I'm going to be looking for the most beautiful landscapes, from beaches to mountains. I am also very excited to see the beautiful architecture, beautiful people, and beautiful food the other side of the world has to offer. 

I am going to travel by land as much as I can. This will allow me to see more. Seeing the landscape change slowly over time as I move along is pretty awesome. It really makes me appreciate where I am, where ever that may be, and gives me a sense of how big the world is. 

I want to take my time and not be afraid to take a zero day. I want to live as naturally as possible in these totally strange places. I want to see how the locals spend their day.

I don't expect my goal to change at all during my trip. Unexpected things could happen, and I could get off the trail a little bit, but that's part of the adventure. Nothing should change my overall goal of seeking out the most beautiful views throughout much of the world. I can't wait to cross this one off the list. 

Half Gallon Challenge at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. Challenge complete. Goal accomplished

Next Adventure

So here is the plan for my next adventure beginning the last week of June, 2016:

1. Start in Alabama.

2. Travel west using as few flights as possible until I get back to Alabama.

That's basically the plan.  I am going to take planes, trains, buses, taxis, tuk tuks, ferries, canoes, cars, bicycles, mopeds, and my own two feet to try to make my way west, all the way around. With plenty of stops along the way to see lots of amazing things I've never seen before. 

 

Brandon, a European guy we met, and David standing on the edge of Australia

The Grand Return

I haven't done much blogging since completing my Appalachian Trail thru hike. I hope y'all didn't get too worried. I am far from dead. The last seven months have flown by faster than I could have imagined. I have transitioned from being homeless, to living in a car, to living in a house and unemployed, to being employed and in a house, to being employed and in another house. All of this transitioning is only preparing me to be homeless again in a few months. Circle of life. 

View from Big Spring park in Huntsville, Alabama

I've redone my website. I think it's a little better. Some fancy things like search bars and such. I know what you're thinking, but I don't think I'm ready to give up my free and active lifestyle for a billion dollar career in computer programming. One thing I added that I hope is useful is the ability to join the website with a name and email address to get emails when new posts come in. It did give the option to have a little tally there at the bottom of the form that says how many people have joined, but I thought that would be pitifully embarrassing so I didn't check that box. 

So I have more travel and adventure plans coming up in July. That's one reason I'm starting this website back up. I'll be headed to Tokyo and the Philippines. Then continuing west for an indefinite amount of time. I'll write more about it later and also about what I've been doing for the last seven months.

This trip is going to be very different. My website is a little different. I think my writing will be different. I think I'm different than when I first started this website. If you liked this blog before, I hope you still will. If you didn't like it before, you're welcome for the second chance. 

Stay tuned for more updates. 

Walking down Franklin Street in Huntsville, Alabama 

My AT Thru Hike Stats

So I guess there is still some engineer left in me. I went through my entire hike day by day and charted some data. I couldn't help myself. I love numbers, and I missed Excel. Don't judge.

One of my favorite cakes of all time

I looked at the miles per day, what type of place I stayed the night, where I slept, if I paid for accommodation, and the cost of the trip. It was really fun to go back through the guide book and look at each day. All the memories were so vivid. I could easily remember almost every single night. Where I slept, who was around me, what I did that day, in what corner of the shelter I was, what I ate. It was like hiking the entire AT all over again with less ice cream.

Hopefully this will help anyone who plans on hiking the AT someday. Maybe it will just be interesting to only me. If you are interested and want more details, I have more details. Enjoy!

Obligatory kiss the Katahdin sign photo


Data

Daily Mileage and Camp - Excel File

Summary

Total Days - 163
Hiking Days - 143
Zero Days (no miles hiked) - 20

Total Average Daily Mileage - 13.5
Average Mileage excluding Zero Days - 15.4

Where I Slept - # nights
     In Tent - 106
     In a Bed - 26
     On a Floor - 13
     In a Bunk - 10
     On a Couch - 4
     On a Wooden Platform - 2
     On a Cot - 1
     On an Airplane - 1

Where I Stayed - # nights - (# nights I paid for this accommodation)
     Stealth Campsite (undesignated, unmarked) - 37 - (0)
     An Average Shelter Campsite - 34 - (0)
     Designated Campsite w/o shelter - 27 - (0)
     Hotel - 18 - (14)
     Hostel - 12 - (9)
     Friend's House - 7 - (0)
     A Unique Shelter (barn, ski hut, etc) - 6 - (0)
     A Large Campground with Facilities - 4 - (1)
     A Trail Angel's Lawn - 4 - (0)
     A Cabin - 4 - (1)
     Tent City (Trail Days) - 3 - (3)
     A Restaurant Lawn - 2 - (1)
     Airbnb Room - 2 - (2)
     A White Mountains Hut - 1 - (0)
     A Public Park - 1 - (0)
     An Airplane - 1 - (1)

APPROXIMATE Total Cost of Trip: $5,700
     ******This is a best guess. It includes flight home and a trip to Las Vegas. It does not include the initial cost of hiking gear. I was not trying to be overly thrifty or spend extravagantly. I believe $1000/month is just about perfect.