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A Quick Escape to Seoul

by becca on April 26, 2010

En route to San Francisco, we had a 10-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea. When we arrived, we checked into our 5:15pm flight and hopped onto bus 6005 to the city. On our way there, we kept feeling like we were cheating the system, visiting a city where we were supposed to be confined to the airport. In our short escape from the international terminal we got a great overview of the city by riding the Seoul City Tour Bus. We cruised around the city, feeling lame for just sitting there and taking photos out the window, wishing we could hop off to explore the National Museum, the War Memorial, the beautiful Namsan Park exploding with cherry blossoms overlooking the city, and the many palaces. But, we were still being adventurous considering how cracked out and tired we were from traveling/not sleeping.

My friend Rachel, who grew up in Seoul, gave us some recommendations and time allowed us to explore two: Myeongdong and Insadong. Rachel enticed us to Myeongdong with the following description: super trendy tokyo like area. Awesome for shopping and people watching and good cheap food. It’s always really crowded here and super energetic. We felt a little bit of this, the shopping looked unreal, but it was Sunday morning and wasn’t really in full swing yet. We did have a really delicious steamed bun/pork dumpling thing. Turns out that Insadong – like an old timey area with lots of antique stores and just a nice place to walk around. Also lots of good tea shops! — was the place to be on Sunday afternoon, when cars aren’t allowed on the street and the place is just alive. Everyone is so fashionable, even the kids have nice clothes and cool haircuts. We ate what was maybe the most delicious meal of our entire trip here, BBQ beef with all the Korean accoutrement… mmm, kimchi!

Seoul is a beautiful city, and one that I hope I can go back to visit properly. As we made our way back to the airport, we caught the bus half an hour later than planned and rode back with the anxiety that we’d miss our flight. Our worries melted away as we breezed through the modern and efficient Incheon Airport and caught our 9.5-hour flight to San Fran with no problems.

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Perhentian Paradise

by becca on April 23, 2010

We spent our final week in Southeast Asia on a fabulous stretch of beach on the smaller of the two Perhentian Islands. I tossed my shoes off the boat that ferried us to the silky sand and didn’t put them on again until we returned to the mainland. Our time there was beautiful and relaxing, plus we tossed a few dives in for good measure. Here’s a small vivid excerpt from a journal entry I wrote there:

Sitting on the front porch of our little wooden hut, set up about 40 meters from the water, I can still hear the rhythmic hum of the waves thrashing and receding against the fine white sand. Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil tops my charts for the best beach I’ve ever experienced — and after seven months in Southeast Asia that’s saying a lot. The water is turquoise with a series of white caps floating across a gentle surf and entices Nathanael and I into swimming a few times a day, splashing around like hyperactive children.

Our third day on the island, our friend Mikey, one of the South Sea Nomads from Padre Burgos, arrived to begin his forth or fifth season of working and diving on the island. Funds are pretty low (read: depleted) at this point, so we only managed to do three dives, one reef clean-up dive, specifically removing the destructive and abundant crown-of-thorns starfish, and two with Mikey at some of the best spots in the area: Temple and T3. The latter was especially dynamic, composed of giant granite boulders that resembled underwater ruins with plenty of swim-throughs and we found six different types of nudis. Between diving and snorkeling (which we did quite a bit of) we saw loads of humphead parrotfish, more blue spotted ribbon tail rays than any where we’ve been, green turtles, schools of yellow snapper, giant groupers and a lot of other tropical fish.

We spent our evenings on the beach, listening to music, smoking shisha and drinking “monkey juice” (a local whiskey called Orang utan). A big thanks to Mikey for making our last week amazing! Perhentian Kecil is truly an island paradise and there’s no better way we could have spent it.

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Interview on Vagablogging

by becca on April 23, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called Reflecting: The Cost of Travel, which was noticed by many friends and family, but also by a beat writer for established travel writer Rolf Potts’ site — the author who’s book I cited in the post as a huge inspiration for long term travel. After a bit of back and forth, the post is now featured on vagablogging.net along with a bit more info — Q&A style — about traveling and budgeting for travel. Check it out!

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In the Dark in Niah Caves

by becca on April 22, 2010

In the middle of the cave, we switched off our flashlights to find ourselves in complete darkness, surrounded by the sound of hundreds of swiflets clicking and water slowly dripping from above. The air felt damp, having long ago surrendered to the unique and putrid smell of guano (bat droppings) that burned our noses. We were in the aptly named Great Cave in Niah National Park, the second largest in Borneo’s grand system, rivaled only by Mulu’s Deer Cave featured in BCC’s Planet Earth (it looks like the same caves to us).

We walked about 3.5 km down a raised wooden path through primary rainforest to reach the caves. First through Trader’s Cave, named for the people who make their living from harvesting swiflets’ nests and guano. Skeletons of wooden shacks still remain from a time when the local traders lived in this cave, which is more like a massive carved out overhang, a cave missing one side. The effect is stunning, stalagtites hanging against a jungle background on one side, a towering roof of limestone above. Swiflet nests are considered a delicacy throughout Asia and are commonly worth about $2000 per kilo, similar to the cost of silver. Harvesting the nests is a big business and to ensure a balance between tourism and tradition, a commision has been regulating the harvesting since the 1950s.

A short walk leads next into the Great Cave. We strayed from the path to walk across a dirt floor into the dark, where openings in the ceiling revealed thick beams of light and the sounds of the bats and swiflets became more pronounced. We then decended a flight of over a hundred stairs into the cave. The cavern just seemed to keep going. Up and down a few more flights of stairs, passing through a few more beams of lights bursting through the roof, then into the deepest, darkest area. This is where we turned off our lights to experience total darkness.

Finally, we arrived at Painted Cave, an archeological gem where a 40,000 year-old skull from a modern homo sapien was discovered, and the site of cave paintings depicting boat journeys into the afterlife dating back to the first century AD. When we visited, an excavated skeleton lay in its grave, now a small roped off area.

After about 2.5 hours of walking through the forest and the cave system, we sat quietly in the serenity of Painted Cave, clearly understanding why the people who lived here so many years ago considered this place sacred.

It took us about 2 hours to make our way back. I hadn’t realized that we would be walking back through the really dark cave, telling Nate that I really enjoyed it the first time, but once was enough. I mean, it was really dark, and just kept going and going before we could see light coming from somewhere other than our weak flashlights. The final leg of our hike was down an offshoot of the main path, which a sign indicated, led to a longhouse. As we made our way down the delapidated path, we climbed over fallen trees and walked through brush that had taken over the path until finally, it was impassable. On the way back, Nate got stung by a jungle bee, then moments later caught his head on a thorny vine and blood spurted everywhere. The thorns on this vine had sliced his head in six different places, and as we learned about a week later, one thorn remained.

I should mention that the hostel where we stayed heped make this trip simple and worry free. We stayed at Dillenia Guesthouse in the wealthy oil town of Miri, where Mrs. Lee makes you feel like you’re home. Borneo’s public transportation system is complicated and even though tourism seems to be a big industry there, they don’t make it easy for tourists to get around. She arranged a car to bring us to the park and back — the driver even packed us a small lunch, provided flashlights and graced us with snacks when we returned. Mrs. Lee also helped us navigate the system to reach Lambir Hills National Park, which was ok — nice trails, great hills, but waterfalls are the highlight and it hadn’t been raining much.

There are over a dozen national parks in Sarawak, Borneo. Some of the more spectacular ones are isolated to the point that you have to fly in and out of the area to explore them. Others are reachable by bus and most have camping facilities. Hiking, camping, caving — Sarawak is an outdoor enthusiast’s haven.

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18 hours in Brunei

by nate on April 14, 2010

In our mad dash through the tiny sultanate, we found ourselves staying in an apartment on the 11th floor of the tallest building in Brunei, probably the richest country in all of Southeast Asia. As broke travelers, we did not expect our short visit to be so stylish.

The small country of Brunei Darussalam sits on the South China Sea in Borneo completely surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It’s run by a sultan who resides in the world’s largest lived-in palace. The country is filthy rich — 5th highest GDP per capita, with free health care and education. But the laws are strict: no alcohol, no cigarettes, and absolutely no homosexual activity. But, as we were just passing through from Sabah to Sarawak, none of this affected our stay (except that our Friday night was spent at a coffee shop instead of at a bar).

Hours 0-2
Nate and I arrived at the pier by ferry and paired up with a Swedish couple as we waited for the bus into town. When the four of us rocked up to the cheapest accommodation town — a government run youth hostel/gym/swimming pool — there was no one there to check us into the single sex dormitories. We ended up renting an apartment for the night, which we all shared for B$40, about $30 USD. This apartment building mainly served as an office building and maybe there was a closed movie theater attached?

Hours 3-5
The security guard on duty was probably wondering what a bunch of scummy looking, backpack toting westerners were doing in his building, but I think it was as exciting for him as it was bizarre for us. He brought us up to the rooftop for the best view in the city (as this was by far the tallest building around), where we could see the stunning Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, the sultan’s palace, and the Brunei River. Just before sunset, the giggling security guard set us up with a friend of his who gives boat tours. The four of us took a tour around the Brunei water village and saw the schools on stills above the water and the small house where the sultan was born. A bit further down river, jungle lined the sides. Here we are not even an hour out of the city and we’re sitting in a boat… watching proboscis monkeys jump around. We headed back right as the sun was setting and the sky was on fire.

Hours 6-8
We had satay from the night market on the river, then walked around the city a bit. It was Friday night and the streets were empty. The place was a ghost town… except for the coffee shops. So what did we do? Got coffee and played UNO.

Hours 9-18
The rest of the evening back at our apartment was spent talking about cameras and computers and deciding how to get to Sarawak the following morning. We wished our new friends goodnight and the next morning snuck out quietly to catch our bus to Malaysia.

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Reflecting: The Cost of Travel

by becca on April 11, 2010

When I was very young a big financier once asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “To travel.” “Ah,” he said, “it is very expensive; one must have a lot of money to do that.” He was wrong. For there are two kinds of travelers; the Comfortable Voyager, round whom a cloud of voracious expenses hums all the time, and the man who shifts for himself and enjoys the little discomforts as a change from life’s routine. –Ralph Bagnold, Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World

In two weeks, we head back to the states after over seven months of traveling through/living in Southeast Asia. As we’re wrapping things up here, I have a lot of thoughts on travel — traveling being unique to you, what travel can teach us, and specifics on what to expect in Southeast Asia — but to kick off this series of reflective posts, I’ve answered a question that many people have asked me in the past few months: How are you doing it?

In August, Nate and I left our jobs, gave up our Brooklyn apartment, moved all of our belongings to the attics of our parents’ houses and spent a few weeks tying up loose ends. We bought a one way ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam, simply because it was the cheapest one at the time. We knew little to nothing about Southeast Asia except that it’s cheap so our money would last a while and it’s tropical so I wouldn’t have to suffer through the New York winter this year. We had a general route of travel in mind, but weren’t dedicated to anything.

During the weeks leading up to our departure there was a never ending list of things to do: get vaccinations and medicine for traveling, knock our cell phone plans down to the lowest possible, let our banks know where we were going, set aside money for school loan payments, build our blog, cancel our Netflix subscription, buy travel insurance, change our address back to our parents’ houses, get out of an unfortunately timed jury duty summons, not to mention wrapping up our responsibilities at work and moving out of our apartment. But off we went… to Vietnam. We jumped in, heads first.

We left the states with about $16,000 between the two of us — and we will have spent every penny by the time we arrive back in the states in two weeks. This doesn’t include money we set aside to pay bills while we were away or the small amount we stashed to use when we return home. We had been saving money for saving’s sake for the past year and a half, but saving specifically for this trip for about six months. In the months leading up to the trip we went out drinking less, ate at home more, and stopped buying things; if it couldn’t fit in our packs, chances are we didn’t buy it.

At first, we didn’t have a budget, we didn’t know how long we’d be gone. We figured we might find some work abroad or we might just come home when the money ran out, we’d see. But after talking to other travelers who had been to many of the places we were headed, we established a $50 a day budget (for the two of us). This proved to be a helpful guide for accommodation, food and entertainment on a day-to-day basis. In some countries, like Thailand and Malaysia, we exceeded our budget more often than not. But in the Philippines and Vietnam, it was easy to stay under this amount. We looked into working abroad but decided against it when Nate’s oldest sister announced her wedding date — we couldn’t miss it, so a few weeks into the trip, we knew we’d be heading home before June.

I have another post brewing about traveling through Southeast Asia specifically and about what kind of prices to expect. But here’s a sample from our experience, just to show how far your money can go on this side of the world:

– Average cost of a room in a guesthouse for two people: $10
– Beer in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: Under $1
– Four hour bus ride (anywhere but Malaysia): Between $3 – $7
– Pair of flip flops: Between $1 – $6 (Philippines is the cheapest!)
– Dish at a night market: Under $2

There’s unexpected stuff though, that has to be covered — like costly transportation (damn you and your western prices Malaysia), the last hotel room in town with a high price tag, hiking boots and flashlights necessary for that trip into the jungle, or a new bathing suit when your strap pops. There are really cool experiences that will blow your budget too. Once we knew there was a cap on our travel time, we got to pick and choose our splurges; for instance, diving, the Gibbon Experience, and Uncle Tan’s Jungle Adventure. Some times after spending a lot on an experience like this, we’d do just about nothing for a day or two to save money. But, if we had really stuck to $50 a day, we could have lasted a few more months out here.

Dropping everything and going traveling takes sacrifices (and if not sacrifices, at least trade-offs). Giving up a fully furnished apartment with a deck to match in Brooklyn was not easy. Leaving a job that I loved was not easy. And I’m sure that replacing both of these when we return home will not be easy. Being on the other side of the world can really strain relationships with friends and family. Even with the internet, we miss birthdays, find ourselves alone on holidays and in the past seven months we’ve seen only three people that we knew before leaving the states. That being said, stripping away everything familiar and removing yourself from routine can help you learn things about yourself.

I know that everyone has unique obligations. I know that not everyone wants to travel long-term. But if you do, if the will is there and you really put your mind to it, I think anyone can do what we’re doing. A great reference for long-term travel, one that both Nate and I have read multiple times, and flip through regularly for inspiration is Rolf Potts’, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Potts covers travel from top to bottom — from getting started to coming home — and peppers in quotes from poets, travel writers and common travelers.

If anyone has any questions about traveling — in general or through Southeast Asia — send me an email. I love talking travel.

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Evenings in Sabah’s Capital

by becca on April 10, 2010

The night market in Kota Kinabalu was the highlight for me. A leisurely walk along the bay past the central market and through the handicraft market leads to tantalizing smells and variety of eating options. I felt like I was swimming through a sea of bright colors and rich aromas as we made our way past the Filipino seafood barbeque stalls, then through rows of fresh pans full of various curries and veggies, to the hot woks stirring up rice and noodle dishes, just before reaching the area full of sweets, fruits and veggies. Needless to say, where we ate dinner each night was not in question — the only question was what?

Kota Kinabalu, or KK, is the capital and largest city in Sabah’s Malaysian Borneo. It’s a hub of tourist information, a base for climbing the nearby mountain (which we were not prepared to do), and to our pleasant surprise, quite a charming city. One evening we tried to reach Signal Hill — a tourist attraction sitting on a cliff overlooking the city and a great place to watch the sunset — but we made a wrong turn some where and never found it. Instead we found a local neighborhood where children sat on the curb listening to Greenday on a small stereo and played badminton in the street. Workers from a nearby housing development climbed through a tall fence surrounding the new neighborhood, crossed the street, and carefully navigated a steep descent down to what appeared to be a makeshift community for the workers — two long rows of houses with aluminum roofs far enough from the street to remain completely out of view. Some how I failed to get a single decent picture from this experience, a bit timid to pull out my fancy camera around a group of people living so humbly.

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Mamutik Island

by nate on April 7, 2010

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu from the jungle, and had just two things on our mind; laundry, and beach. Before our arrival a nice gentlemen from Holland had mentioned a few islands were very near KK, the largest city in Borneo. In fact, he said a little Island named Mamutik was just a twenty minute boat ride away, and you could camp on the island. The travel gods were smiling upon us.

The tiny island was basically the complete opposite of any island I had recently been on. There were rules. A string of floats marked the “swimming area” with another set of floats marking the “snorkeling area” by the beach. Then there was the entire other side of the island, which on a tiny map at the entrance was labeled “scuba diving.” Of course, my instant assumption was that that was where the good snorkeling would be, and that maybe I could swim to the other side of the island, leaving the orange-lifevested package tour clan behind. Watching some of those people try to swim was seriously perplexing. I swam over, and was just about to round the side when I notice a DM standing on shore waving his hands frantically. Evidently I’m not suppose to be doing this, and somebody is actually stopping me. I’m no longer in the Philippines, but rather a “desert island” theme park in Malaysia. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

Becca and I would need a game plan. We talked to the diveshop and asked about the other side. We asked about trails to the other side. We even asked about accompanying a dive boat to the other side. “No. No. 50 ringit each (US14).” Definitely not the answers we were looking for. So we set out to find our trail.

There’s not much story between marching out from our tent, and the water’s edge on the other side. It turns out there’s a combination of trails that lead down a few stacked granite boulders ending with crystal clear water, not the murky jellyfish water on the “swimming/snorkeling” side. The water had all the good stuff, and the best part was we didn’t have to share it with anyone.

Becca and I have become fascinated with the world of nudibranchs, the colorful seaslug. It’s like an Easter egg hunt in the ocean, as the size, color, and location of these beautiful creatures varies greatly. The one consistency is they’re slow moving, thus perfect photo specimens. I’ve created a nudibranch flickr set highlighting the best I’ve found.

Other highlights of the trip were building fires every night when the daytrippers had left, and sharing the tiny island with the tiny crabs scurrying in the moonlight. We found massive monitor lizards, but one in particular was basically a small crocodile. I was snorkeling when he came walking along the beach, then jumped in for a swim right towards me, before circling around and lazily walking back to the woods. Amazing creatures.

Orangutans and Orchids

by becca on April 7, 2010

We arrived at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center around 9:30am and waited as the wooden observation deck filled up with tourists. Later that morning, the orphaned orangutans who currently call the center home as they are reintroduced to the wild and weened off human contact, would be served a modest meal of milk and bananas. The young apes seemed shy, but used the wires connecting trees with a series of platforms to swing their small muscular bodies over for breakfast and chow down with the numerous pig-tailed macaques around.

But the center’s main priority is certainly not tourism. The orangutans that used to roam freely around Borneo are now endangered, and many youngsters are found around palm oil plantations where the trees end — many times being orphaned by the murder of their mothers. The center cares for the scared babies and goes through a delicate process of rehabilitating them so that one day they may live on their own in the wild — a process that takes up to seven years. And they’ve had great success. While some orangutans never stray far from the center throughout their adult lives, many others go on to mate and raise their own babies.

Just down the road from the orangutan center is the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center, which is sort of like a park with a variety of hiking trails, viewing towers, canopy walks, and a small information center. The beautiful and well-marked Plant Discovery Garden was especially impressive — Nate and I couldn’t stop photographing the lush orchids. And in the slideshow you’ll also come across some obligatory photos with “The Sepilok Giant.”

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Lonely Planet likes our blog.

by nate on April 4, 2010

The extremely popular travel guide, Lonely Planet, has decided to add our blog, Hiandthankyou.com, to a special list of featured blogs on their website. This is exciting for us, because our travel trips, stories, adventures, and opinions are now on Lonelyplanet.com, shown next to related content for other travelers to enjoy and benefit from. This is really cool.

We were added to their BlogSherpa program a few months ago, and have since received emails from both travelers and business owners who have mutually benefited from the information. This puts a big smile on my face:)

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