Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I headed north passing through Medan and Banda Aceh, before taking a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. The town of Iboih was half developed and most everything was closed due to Ramadan. However, this didn’t cause any problems as we spent the majority of our time underwater. Known to be the best place in the Indian Ocean to dive, it’s unnecessary to say that we had a blast. Larry, Kaitlin and Nick went on multiple fun dives, while I completed my open water diver certification. Although a small achievement, I was extremely proud of myself for getting over my fear of scuba diving. After a handful of dives, we spotted: reef shark, sting rays, moray eels, turtles, puffer fish, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lionfish, catfish, rainbow fish, and a million other unknown colorful creatures.
On some of my dives, I saw motorbikes and cars sitting on the ocean floor as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. We spoke with Norma, the owner of our bungalow, about the affects the Tsunami had on a Pulau Weh. She said that 11 people had died, the island wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Banda Aceh where over 61,000 people were killed. She told us that the people on the island stopped eating fish because they were finding human parts in them and that they began to eat a lot of dried sting ray as so many washed up onto shore. She made it clear that the natural disaster was tied to religion, she mentioned people being saved maybe because they were good muslims and mentioned how she didn’t see many children in the mass graves, she didn’t know why, maybe they were spared. She remembered people climbing up coconut trees and after the destruction, individuals from Medan coming and stealing family land from the deceased. The destruction on Sumatra was unimaginable and we were looked forward to learning more in Banda Aceh.
We all like to think that we are open-minded and have global perspectives, however we all make preconceived notions, and I am no different. After watching a VICE episode filmed in Banda Aceh about Sharia Law, to be honest I was a little nervous about visiting. I recalled them interviewing a man who had pledged his alliance to ISIS and the strict law that forbid public display of affection, western dress, non- conservative dress, drugs and alcohol, the meeting of non- married couples, and homosexuality. The episode showed a man receiving 80+ canes in the town square for breaking what felt like a petty crime. I checked the state department site to make sure there were no dangers for tourists and was eager to learn more about these differences. It turns out, it felt just like many other Southeast Asian cities. It wasn’t dangerous and didn’t feel oppressed. We had to be mindful of our actions, dress appropriately, and avoid eating in public due Ramadan. However, wherever you travel you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. Locals were friendly and shouting, “Good morning!” and “What’s your name?” as they sped by on their motorbikes. We thoroughly enjoyed the wealthy city (from oil) and explored the markets and many colorful fishing boats.
On our first night, we met up with a CouchSurfer who took us out for street food and when his phone flashed 6:40, we heard the mosque sirens and broke fast. He left for 2 hours to pray and we reunited around 11 pm. He picked us up with his friends to eat a second meal as most individuals fasting eat very late then again at 4am before prayer. We ate Aceh noodle soup with seafood and drank juice that consisted of avocado, jackfruit and coconut. He showed us around the Masjid Raya, which was the most beautiful mosque I have seen on our travels. The intricate marble screens were beautiful, the complex was enormous and it was immaculately maintained. 12 umbrellas modeled after those in Medina (Saudi Arabia) made it feel very modern. We learned that the small Banda Aceh airport, which offers 6 flights a day, has 2 direct flights to Medina per week. Our CouchSurfer told us how difficult and expensive it was to make a pilgrimage there or to Mecca, but anyone that did was extremely lucky.
The next day, Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I visited the Tsunami museum, which was not only well done, but also heart wrenching. Between fighting with the Dutch, a civil war and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, this city had a hard history. As we entered the museum we walked through a dark hallway with 98 ft. walls of dripping water, this represented the height of the waves in Aceh.
Both earthquake epicenters (9.2 magnitude and 7.5) were only 250 km from the state of Aceh, however its affects were seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia and Seychelles.
Of the 250,000 people that were killed from the tsunami, 61,000 were in Banda Aceh.
Similar to stories we heard in Sri Lanka, locals walked out on the exposed ocean floor collecting fish, unsure of what was happening. The ocean receded 900 ft. before the initial 98 ft. wave crashed the shore.
4 mass graves are located in Banda Aceh, where the victims of the tsunami rest.
In Aceh history, tsunamis are known as le Beuna, a warning from Allah to all of human society to get back to the right side of life.
We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banda Aceh (and in every other town we’ve visited in Sumatra) but had to catch our flight to Jakarta. We boarded the plane to an announcement stating, “Any trafficking of drugs will end in the penalty of death.” It was obvious that all of our bags had been thoroughly searched as zippers were opened, clothes were moved and books pages were ripped.
Olala & Oong Bungalows (Iboih) – both offer cheap accommodations with great meals; also try Dee Dee’s Kitchen next to Rubiah Divers
Rubiah Tirta Divers (Iboih)- the only locally owned dive shop on the island, you get lots of personalized attention, but don’t expect the staff to start early. They offer great Ramadan specials, open water PADI certification 3,200,000 rupiah ($240)
Ramadan street food (Banda Aceh)- at 4pm (only during Ramadan) the streets are lined with delicious sticky rice, sweets, fruit soup, noodles, fish curries, fried tofu, peanut salad and fruit. By 6pm, everything is sold out and everyone is closing shop. Take it to go and eat in private or wait until sunset to eat with the locals.
Not only is Lake Toba the largest lake in Southeast Asia, it is the largest volcanic lake in the world. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I spent 2 days relaxing around the sleepy town of Tuk Tuk and were thankful we were not visiting during high season. We observed a local wedding, enjoyed local coffee, and (they) ate fresh water fish and crawfish. Lake Toba is home to Christain Batak people; we visited execution sites as Bataks practiced ritual cannibalism until 1816. We drove by numerous churches, tombs and traditional Batak homes. It felt like traditional homes were the affordable housing option for lower income individuals. The newer more elaborate Batak homes seemed to be built solely for tourism. We rented a motorbike, drove along the “coast” and visited some extremely hot, hot springs. The lush and volcanic landscape reminded Larry and Kaitlin of Hawaii.
We headed north to Berstagi, a small hill town that sat among volcanoes and that we came to cherish. The volcanic soil made it ideal for growing produce and we passed fields of cabbage, green onion, pineapple, orange, and coffee. Exploring the markets and street food were among our favorite activities. The highlight of our time spent in Berstagi was hiking Gunung Sibayak (volcano). We began hiking at 4 am in order to catch a beautiful sunrise. The crater and fluorescent yellow vents were a sight but nothing in comparison to the view across the valley of Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m). As I was posing for photos with some locals, Nick shouted “Look behind you!” Black smoke began to rise from the massive volcano, it was an eruption. For anyone that knows me, I began to slightly panic. I looked at the girls that I was taking photos with and asked if this was normal. They said no and that they were scared. Little did I know that it is an extremely active volcano and has small eruptions 2-5 times a day. I was being punk’d! The most recent large eruption was in May 2017 where 2 aid workers were killed trying to rescue residents. We hiked down the volcano’s backside through lush jungle and soaked in some hot springs at the bottom.
Sibayak (Lake Toba) – budget friendly rooms right on the lake, when you are ready to leave, simply flag down the ferry.
Wisma Sibayak (Berstagi) – cute rooms for 60,000 rupiah ($4.50) tucked off of main street, excellent find and strong wifi.
Family Baru (Berstagi) – try the coffee, ginger & egg white drink, you can’t go wrong with any of the food.
Although Nick and I were having a hoot in India, after 2 months we were beginning to feel exhausted. We crossed into Nepal by land and the difference was night and day. Nepalis smiled at us and helped us cross the border. They made sure we got on the right bus and pointed out their favorite momo hut. Nick thought it was all a trick or maybe we were getting scammed but I assured him that Nepalis were the kindest of them all. The 11 hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu was exciting to say the least. We were surprised by how undeveloped the only road into the capital was and we followed a deep gorge the entire way. We saw vehicles teetering off the edge and although our bus driver drove like a lunatic (like all bus drivers in Asia) we were thankful when we arrived safely.
I was elated to be back in Nepal and although Kathmandu was dusty and touristed I was excited to return. The affects from the 2015 earthquake were very present and Kathmandu reminded both Nick and I of the soviet era capital of Mongolia (Ulan Batar). We appreciated the law against unnecessary honking. We watched people line the street and march for their favored party in the upcoming election. The election was a big deal as this was the first local election in 20 years. Nick and I spent a few days running errands and arranging our trek to Dolpo before picking up Larry and Kaitlin (our friends from Hawaii) from the airport. Before trek we spent a few days exploring the city.
We spent Buddha’s birthday at Boudhanath Stupa
Durbar Square (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu)
Garden of Dreams
My highlight was spending time with Sri and Tsewang, friends I met in Nepal in 2012 and later worked with when I worked for an adventure travel company, Above the Clouds. We had many meals together and gained local knowledge on the election, Mustang, politics, and climate change.
After our 20+ day on trek (Dolpo Trek blog post), Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were excited to head to Pokhara, mostly looking forward to bathing and eating. I remembered Pokhara as a small lakeside city with lychee trees and ping pong. However, the amount of development and construction in the past 5 years was astonishing. It felt like any college town from the states plopped into the rainforest. There were hundreds of hotels and I was surprised to see fast food chains and box stores.
Before leaving Kathmandu we were thrilled to find lychee season begun! We prompty ate 4 pounds of lychee and many mangos before boarding our flight for Indonesia!
Momo Hut- palak paneer momos, palak and peanuts, garlic and cheese chilimomos
Utse- a Tibetan restaurant that offers great hot pots and Tongba (hot water poured over fermented millet)
Fren’s Kitchen- great tofu steak and best wifi in Thamel
Fire & Ice- a delicious pizza place for Western cravings after trek
Rosemary- Western breakfast
Lassi- a delicious local lassi stand on Thamel Marg (40 R for a small, 70 R for a large)
Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.
During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.
Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.
We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.
Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.
Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.
Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.
Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.
Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).
Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.
Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.
Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.
Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.
Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.
Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.
Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.
Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).
Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.
Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).
Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.
Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.
Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.
After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.
Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.
Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.
We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.
Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.
Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.
Dhal Bhat- 28 meals
Days camping- 11
Days in tea houses- 10
Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)
Imagine the United States, only more hip, efficient, clean and with better food. You are imagining Singapore, a utopia. Prompt driverless trains dominate the public transit system, tap water is drinkable, and trash cans can be found every 20 feet. Not only is toilet paper provided in most restrooms, but it can also be flushed down the toilet. J walking is nonexistent. Chewing gum is illegal and littering will cost you at least S$1,000 ($800 USD). Nick and I did not see any homeless, we did not see any garbage and there was no pollution. Our ONLY complaint was the long queues entering and exiting immigration.
Singapore is a wealthy country and after 3 days, Nick and I never fully adjusted to the U.S.- like prices. The society seemed a little racist, as all of the manual labor was done by individuals from India or Bangladesh, however overall the people were kind and it was easy to navigate as English is the national language. Nick and I filled our time between meals with activities, although the main focus in Singapore is eating at hawker stalls (open air food courts), which seemed to be located in every neighborhood.
Unfortunately, our travel day from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore took longer than expected. Thus, Nick spent the majority of his birthday on trains. However, he did get a nice Western breakfast and blew out a match at midnight in downtown Singapore after eating some Indian food and drinking a cold brew. Happy 25th Nick Loeb!
Nick and I spent our first morning wandering around the free botanic gardens, visiting the medicine and fragrance gardens. The 183-acre garden was a perfect place to take in some manicured greenery and escape the high rises.
Next, we headed to Chinatown where we ate at 1 of Singapore’s 2 Michelin star awarded harked stalls. We waited for about 30 minutes to enjoy Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. My tofu was delicious and Nick thoroughly enjoyed his first Michelin star meal that was the cheapest Michelin star meal ever awarded. After, we visited the 5 storey Buddhist temple that holds Buddha’s tooth relic (although it seems to be more symbolic than an actual tooth). We wandered through the museum, which reinstalled our knowledge of Buddha’s life and the life of the future Buddha, Maitreya. Although interesting, because Nick and I have spent so much time in Theravada Buddhist temples, I think we may have enjoyed lunch more.
Next, we headed to Level33, a super highbrow craft brewery on the 33rd floor of a business building. We sat outside and enjoyed the view of the marina and watched ships come and go. We definitely felt a little out of place as our conversation and look, differed greatly from the group sitting next to us of 35 year olds that were discussing their sorority and fraternity groups in college. We made our way to Maxwell Hawker court. This was my favorite meal in Singapore and I had delicious congee with fresh spring onion, fried onion and handmade tofu. For desert I had lychee, almond Jell-O on shaved ice, which my mom always made for my birthdays. She told me it was a Chinese thing, but I don’t think I ever believed her until this moment.
After dinner we watched a free concert and left just in time to watch the marina bay light show. The bay-front building lit up and shot lasers across the city. The manicured skyline reflected in the water. From the bay we walked to Gardens of the Bay where we laid on the cement ground with others and watched 100 foot tall man made trees covered in moss light up to music. Although cheesy, the same kind of cheesy as Disney firework shows, it was still a highlight as the music was great and lights were tasteful.
The next day, Nick and I hiked 8 miles at MacRichie Reservoir. We were looking forward to walking across the sky bridge, a bridge that is raised above the canopy, however it was unfortunately closed on Mondays. We still got a great view of the city from a viewing tower. After, we took the train to an island off the coast of Singapore called Sentosa, which was full of man made beaches, universal studios and an aquarium. While advertised as the largest aquarium in the world, Nick and I decided to splurge and go. Although further research proved it did not even make a list of top 10 largest aquariums it was still well done. Excluding 2 dolphins, we thought they did a good job with the animals that they had in captivity. They had jellyfish, many types of fish, stingrays, hammer head sharks, etc. We left Sentosa, and went to a young hip food truck scene with live music. I ordered durian creme brulee while Nick enjoyed a craft beer among 100 options.
The next morning before we left Singapore we visited the Colonial district and Arab street. The process to get to the airport was the easiest thus far. We walked 500 feet from our hostel to a subway stop, took the subway to the airport terminal and machines checked us in, scanned, weighed and took out luggage. We returned to Bangkok for a night before our next flight to Kolkata, India!
Anyone looking to travel and get a taste of Asia without the chaos, I’d highly recommend Singapore!
– Lau pa sat- Modern and hip hawker stall center with hundreds of options
– Lavender food square- try the wonton noodles
– Zam Zam- famous for it’s murtabak, they make a great vegi version
We arrived to Kyaukme by train and saw very few other foreigners. I took the opportunity to rest my ankle while nick continued on and trekked north, a trek highly recommended by a French couple we met in Laos. I spent the majority of my time going stir crazy in my guesthouse (good thing the metal bars kept me in). During my first night, while eating chapati and curry, a local girl abruptly said, “Come here, tomorrow at 5, we eat at market together.” And just like that it seemed as if I made a friend. The next night night we ate at the local market and finished the evening eating chapati at her tea house. On my last day, I ate with her father, sister, stepmother, and stepsister. The Burmese, Shan and Pakistani family made rice, cauliflower, cabbage soup, chicken curry and shrimp curry. They liked watching me eat with my hands as I was obviously less familiar. Overall, I was bummed to miss out on an amazing trek, but the rest was necessary.
Nick’s Trek North
While Stacia was resting in Kyaukme with her foot up and crutches ready, I went on a 3 day trek/motorcycle ride with a group from Germany, Singapore, Belgium and Holland led by our amazing guide, Thura. It was a very eclectic group with some having more experience and motivation for trekking than others. Overall, we had a good time making fun of American politics and admiring the untouched culture of the Shan State.
First, we motorbiked for 3 hours to a small village in mountains outside of Kyaukme. The surrounding countryside was primarily occupied by Pulong peoples 1 of the 150 ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Ever since Myanmar became independent from Britain these people have been fighting for autonomy from the government. In the first village, we had a lunch of traditional tea leaf salad and toured a couple local worker’s shops. The first shop was for rice whiskey (100 proof) which Thura bought for later that night. This shop also had pigs to eat the by-product of the whiskey. Next, we visited a bamboo paper mill where “gold paper” is made for new year. Before heading off Thura bought us all beetle nut, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Drying bean curd in the sun
100 proof rice whiskey
After another hour of driving, we stopped to hike to the highest point in the region which offered great views. On the way down, we stopped to meet some ethnic Nepali, whose grandparents were brought to Myanmar to fight the British. Next, we drove to the village where we would spend the night. On arrival, Thura pointed and said, “look insurgent army” and laughed very heartily. On the hill and the main road were men in camouflage, holding rifles. At first I thought he was joking, but he insisted, yes it was the Shan State Army. Although currently an insurgency, there is a year long ceasefire that has enabled access to the area. I think this detail was purposefully left out of the itinerary. We soon were shaking hands, meeting and laughing with the soldiers who were enthusiastic to meet us, but not to be photographed. That evening we wandered around the town as soldiers turned into fathers and sons going home for diner or catching horses from the field. Our homestay family were friends of Thura’s grandfather, a nice older couple with a beautiful wooden stilted home (as all are in the region).
The next morning, we left the motorbikes and continued on foot into the tea fields lining the hills in every direction. We hiked for a few hours before stopping in a home for tea and a rest. There were only women home and they were happy to cook us some fried peanuts. After another few hours of hiking we arrived at another home in the tea fields with a man making a bamboo basket. At first we thought it was just another special shop tour but then the man retrieved an old musket from the home. As usual with Thura it was another surprise, target shooting!
Soon after, we walked into a small village (maybe 25 homes) where school was in secession. With angry teachers looking on, we took pictures with the kids and went through the English alphabet. Our homestay was in another beautiful wood stilted home with indoor (no chimney) open fire and a very welcoming family with two young boys. That night before dinner we swam in a small pool that doubled as a small hydroelectric facility for the village lights.
In the morning, we relaxed and watched the village wake up as kids went to school and fog lifted from the valley below. We then took the fast way back to our first village to retrieve our motorbikes. Thura then took us down some adventurous trails to a small village with a beautiful view next to the school. However, we were quickly off again to make it back in time for my 4pm bus. Just before Kyaukme we stoped for a traditional lunch of raw beef mixed with sticky rice (Stacia would have been thrilled) and then I wheeled in just in time to meet Stacia to head back to Mandalay.
Nick and I spent a week climbing and eating in Chiang Mai. It was relaxing spending a few days in one place and we were able to celebrate our own unconventional Christmas.
At my previous job in Colorado, my company sponsored 2 strong climbers from Chiang Mai that I continued to stay in touch with. During our visit, we met up and it was a blast to some familiar faces and get some local insight. Although they had to work, we had fun climbing with their friends.
We climbed 6 days at Crazy Horse Buttress, the rock 21 miles outside of the city. The rock was limestone (as all rock is in Southeast Asia) although extremely diverse. We climbed a dirty 4 pitch route up through a cave that rewarded us with a view and various other sharp overhanging routes. Of the 30 plus routes we climbed, our favorite routes were on heart wall which had sustained climbing up to 30 meters.
Nick and I decided to take a rest day on the 26th and celebrated Christmas! We spent the morning at a Thai cooking class (Asian Scenic Thai Cooking School $28) and ended the evening with a Thai massage (Lila Thai Massage $7). At the cooking class, we visited the local market and picked up foreign ingredients that I’ve never seen before (eggplant the size of a pea, coriander leaves, kaffir lime and tamarind sauce). We picked herbs and vegetables from the garden and before we began to cook were treated with an appetizer. This dish was called Meang Kim or Thai welcome snack as it’s traditionally used to greet guests. A dish with diced shallot, sliced lime with the skin, roasted peanuts, toasted coconut meat, ginger, chilies, betel leaves and sweet syrup (palm sugar, ginger, water, salt and shallot) were placed in front of us. We were told to fold the leaves to form a cup and place all of the ingredients inside. We drizzled the sweet syrup on top and ate it in one bite. As we slowly chewed we could taste all of the flavors at once. It was spicy from the ginger and chilies, bitter from the lime and betel leave and sweet from the toasted coconut and syrup. It was fascinating as I’ve never felt all of those sensations in one bite.
Thai Welcome Snack
After, we began to cook. We made pad thai, cachew and basil stir fry, spring rolls, green curry, red curry, panang curry, massaman curry, mango sticky rice, deep fried bananas, and bananas in coconut milk.
Mango Sticky Rice
I’ve only ever made Thai curry from store bought curry paste, so it was interesting to make it from scratch. Did you know red curry paste and green curry paste use all of the same ingredients (kaffir lime skin, shallot, garlic, turmeric, coriander seeds, ginsing, lemongrass and galangal), only different chili peppers? Green curry uses fresh small young green chilies making it more spicy and red curry uses dried large red chilies. Did you know the only difference from red curry and panang curry is that panang curry uses peanuts to take away some of the heat? And Khaw Soi (northern Thai curry served with egg noodles) is red curry with added chili oil and curry powder. Masaman curry (which has more Indian origin) is made from dried red chilies, peanuts, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom pods, kaffir lime skin, shallot, garlic, turmeric, coriander seeds, ginsing, lemongrass and galangal. We had a blast at the cooking class and though it was money well spent.
There are so many markets in Chiang Mai, morning markets, night markets, Saturday markets, Sunday markets, night bizzares, etc. Nick and I explored as many as we could and ate our brains out. We also ate at Chun Kurn, a classy vegetarian buffet that I’d highly recommend and A Taste of Heaven. We had a blast in Chaing Mai and are heading Sukhathai then Myanmar before returning to Southern Thailand. Happy New Year!