Friday, June 29, 2012


Liz as far north as one can get on Borneo.
In Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian Borneo, we read online about an area on the north coast where rocky, jungle-clad hills meet abruptly with pristine, empty beaches that stretch for miles. Few outsiders visit the area, plus the government built a massive, if not kitschy, monument there to mark the northernmost tip of the island. Sort of like the shrine in Key West that designates the most southern part of the U.S. (at least, geographically), but totally different. Sounded like our kind of place.

From KK, we hitched a ride with a friendly, knowledgeable Brit named Howard, who we’d emailed about potential places to stay on the coast. As it happened Howard was in the city running some errands—including buying roofing materials for his longhouse-style jungle lodge—before making the four-hour drive back to his place.

Picking up some bamboo and palm thatch for the new roofs at Tampat Do Aman
He said we were welcome to go along, and he even let us ride inside the car, as opposed to in the back or on the roof where we’ve spent many miles of this trip. He also answered lots of our questions about the island, such as “Why does everything smell like fish?” (locals add dried, shrimp-infused anchovies to everything they eat) and “What does ‘pusat’ mean?” (it’s the Malaysian word for ‘center’, as in medical pusat, tire pusat, traffic pusat, anchovy pusat, etc. and is on every sign you see).

In addition to the free ride, the quality education, and the cheap housing at the Tampat Do Aman, Howard rented us a luxury automobile, which he’d nicknamed “the Malaysian Ferrari.” While the not-so-pretty hoopty had bad brakes, no radio, holes in the floorboard and an un-removable ignition key, there was no paperwork, insurance, or signature required. And at roughly $25/day with unlimited mileage—plus a steering wheel on the right side and a chance to drive legally on the left—we couldn’t pass up such a golden opportunity.
Kip shows off the impressive Malaysian Ferrari.
We spent the next couple of days cruising the back roads, checking out the surrounding shores, and visiting the aforementioned monument.

As unspoiled and stunning a place as Borneo's north coast is, it's hard to imagine it will remain this way for long. But for now, it's well worth a few days time...particularly if you can get in touch with Howard and reserve the Malaysian Ferrari.
Kip meditates on the tip of Borneo monument. And afterwards narrowly avoids an arrest.
Kip walks along a suspension bridge we came across.  The road led here, but we figured even the Malaysian Ferrari wouldn't make it across this bridge.
Liz made some new friends at the monument, and reminds everyone how short they are.
Taking in the sunset view with the only beer in Borneo.  It's called "3 Amigos" and is made in Vietnam...

Thursday, June 28, 2012


If you've ever imagined swimming through a school of thousands of friendly fish, check out this video. Liz literally vanished around the 30-second mark, once the cloud of jackfish engulfs us.

Fish schools like this are part of the reason Sipadan was one of Jacques Cousteau's favorite dive spots. That and the sharks and the turtles and the ridiculous variety of life you can see there.

The video is from our trip to Sipadan Island a couple weeks ago...we finally found internet fast enough to upload it.

Another update coming tomorrow...

Monday, June 25, 2012


The U.S.-based Johnny Rogers Band jams at the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival. 
Before we travel somewhere, we usually send emails to nonprofits or charitable organizations operating in the city/town/village where we're heading, in hopes of finding a volunteer opportunity.

For example, before we got to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, we sent messages to local groups such as Habitat for Humanity Borneo and to the organizers of the Kota Kinabalu Jazz Festival, an annual music festival that raises money for numerous local causes.

Sometimes, our emails will go unanswered. Others, like the one to the festival, get a positive response.

As it turns out, the jazz festival folks were working with the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia to promote the upcoming event, to help with fundraising, as well as to highlight one of the acts performing there, an American group called the Johnny Rogers Band. They needed an extra hand with their marketing efforts and asked if we could do some photography and writing for them while we were at the event.

Count us in.

While there, we took tons of photos for the organizers and the embassy, we got to interview bands, and we managed to have a little fun in the process. Afterward, Kip even published an article about the event for the Huffington Post.

Check out the story and photos here.

Us with jazz guitarist and co-chairman of the festival Roger Wang.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


We took these photos in a small Chinatown food stall in downtown Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. The man with the rag on his shoulders had just served us an incredibly tasty pork bbq sandwich.

First of all, pork is incredibly hard to come by in Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, so this alone was amazing. 

But then, our waiter moved a few items off a shelf next to the crock pot, including a rice cooker and some knives, and began to play...the piano. And he was AMAZING. Our jaws literally dropped to the floor. He played a beautiful medley for about five minutes, and then got up to clear our plates. 

Turns out, every evening he plays piano at one of the nicest hotels in the city. The restaurant gig is just his day job. 

We felt so lucky to see him play. Kip even left a tip, so he must have made an impression.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


A long-tailed macaque reacts when we tell him about our vast knowledge of Borneo's jungles.
Ever heard of the Kinabatangan River in Borneo? No? Well, we hadn't either, not until we read about it in a restaurant while trying to figure out where we should go the following day. [Note to self: do more research before visiting our next destination]

The Kinabatangan, Malaysia's second longest river, is one of Borneo's premier jungle attractions and is the place to go if you want to see animals in the wild. The area around the river is home to proboscis monkeys, hornbills, orangutans, red-leaf monkeys, macaques, lots of leeches, and if you're lucky, the rare pygmy elephant, among hundreds of other amazing creatures.

A baby pig-tailed macaque has some leaves for breakfast. 
It's also on the way to Kota Kinabalu, or "KK" as it's known, which is where we were ultimately headed.

While there were no buses to the river, a guy at the restaurant where we were reading said we could probably hop a bus to KK and ask the driver to drop us off at the "meeting place."

Liz asked, "What's the meeting place, sir?"

Restaurant man responded, "It's where the KK bus will drop you if you ask the driver. From there you try to find a ride to the river."

Of course! Being dropped off alone on a rural roadside in Borneo. Great idea. No danger of being eaten by wild animals here, certainly not in the middle of the jungle.

So we gave it a shot.

After three hours on the bus, the driver pulled off the road and said, "meeting place." We looked around and realized, he's talking to us. Out the window were only three roadside shops...and they were closed. We grabbed our packs, the bus pulled away, and we realized we may have made a mistake. Did we mention we're working on our planning skills?

Luckily, just before sunset, when the animals and mosquitoes were starting to feed, a local man and his wife stopped and agreed to haul us to Bilit, which was a 45-minute drive over rough, gravel roads, across small creeks, and through vast plantations of palm trees planted where dense jungle once stood. Side note: the oil produced from palm trees here is the blessing and curse of Borneo--while it's a leading export, growers have clear cut millions of acres of virgin forests and wildlife habitat, and more is disappearing every day. Learn more from this National Geographic story by our friend Mel White (sorry, Mel, can't believe we didn't read this and ask for your advice before we came!).

When we arrived at the "jetty" (a small pile of boards nailed together, floating on empty oil drums), the nice driver graciously let us use his phone to call a jungle lodge to send a boat to pick us up. Thankfully, one did.

Our stay at the "lodge" proved to be stunning. While we slept two nights on thin, twin mattresses draped with well-used mosquito nets, they were two of the more well-rested nights of our trip. The soothing, constant roar of the jungle surrounded us. Our palm-roofed hut overlooked the chocolate milk-colored river, which we floated down on guided boat trips at dawn and dusk, when the animals are most active. We took nature hikes in daylight and even after dark. Despite the shin-high galoshes we borrowed from the lodge, Kip finally got his first leech. He was so proud.

Based on the photos below, the lack of planning mostly worked out in the end. But for a few minutes there...waiting on the side of that road hoping for a ride to the river...we had our doubts.

Yes, those are really pygmy elephants behind the two American cuckoos. 
A hungry pygmy elephant grabs herself a breakfast of champions. River grass. Mmmm.
A male proboscis monkey. Write your own caption in the comments below. Note: kids visit this site.
One of Borneo's many species of leaf insects. Now that's some camouflage to be proud of.

A Rufous-backed kingfisher.
A rhino hornbill.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


The playground is open, at least for Liz!
Sipadan is on the must see list of divers around the world. Ever since Jacques Cousteau in 1980 said, "I have seen other places like Sipadan...45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art." 

He was right. This truly is an incredible place.

Two nudibranchs looking for lunch.
Just off the coast of Borneo, Sipidan has had its problems. Long disputed territory between Malaysia and Indonesia, this island was also the site of the Sipadan Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis, where divers and resort workers were kidnapped by a terrorist group in 2000.

Since then, all the resorts have been demolished, as ordered by the government, and the island has returned to its (almost) natural state. Only 120 people each day are allowed in the area, with divers and snorkelers required to sign in at the jetty, with a heavy armed military presence.

That may sound extreme, but it's comforting to know that the Malaysian government is serious about protecting what is one of the best dive sites in the world, surrounded by a sheer reef wall that drops down more than 2000 feet just off shore. It truly did not disappoint.

With massive schools of Jacks, Giant Trevally, Giant Barracuda, more turtles than we could count, Nudibranchs, Black and White Tip Reef Sharks, beautiful hard and soft corals, and numerous other reef fish we don't know the names of. And with dive sites such as Drop Off, Barracuda Point and Turtle Cave, we were in scuba diving heaven. 

A beautiful sea anemone. 

Sleeping shark...Liz hopes. He was.

Schools of barracuda circle Sipadan constantly.
We literally got lost swimming in the clouds of jackfish that frequent Sipadan's reef.
Heading into the jungle for a few days. Hoping to see lots of birds, monkeys, orangutans, and maybe even the endangered pygmy elephant. 

We also have a fun volunteer project lined up that we hope to write about later this week when we're back in civilization. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012


We didn't know much about Singapore before we arrived, other than you can get caned for chewing gum, you can get hanged for doing drugs, and for spray painting cars, well, you may remember the American wanna-be graffiti artist Michael Fay. So, we armed ourselves with a brand new pack of Bubblicious (just to tempt the gods) hopped a bus for five hours, and went to see what kind of trouble we could get into.

Singapore is nothing, if not expensive. We made the mistake of booking a cheap room on, the cheap SE Asian traveler's best friend. The online reviews for the "hotel" were questionable, but we figured those people were just high maintenance. We were wrong. Upon arrival we discovered we would be staying in a "by the hour" hotel...that hadn't been cleaned for at least a decade, and that we'd unfortunately already paid for. (Note: When in Singapore, DO NOT stay at the Aliwal Park Hotel). We put down towels on the floor so we didn't have to touch anything, we slept in our clothes, and we found a clean hostel the next night.

So, other than accidentally sleeping in a brothel, there are three things you must do in Singapore:
1) Have a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel
2) Go to the ATM to pay for #1
3) Have some incredible street food

Seeing as how we'd already covered the pre-requisite brothel incident, we were off to have a Singapore Sling at the incredibly beautiful, colonial era Raffles Hotel. After all, the drink was invented here, plus Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and other well-known writers stayed here, so we had to see it for ourselves. We plopped down at the bar, ordered a drink, and got really excited when it arrived!

It was a lovely drink, until we got the bill....26 Singapore Dollars ($18 US) for ONE drink. Wow, glad we didn't order two!

Kip was underwhelmed. For him, the only saving grace was that he got a free appetizer (peanuts), plus he'd found perhaps the only place in Singapore where you could litter without worry of arrest and being caned--the Raffles bar allows patrons to toss empty peanut shells on the bar's floor. 

Having experienced the infamous Singapore Sling, we were off to take care of number three on the list. What Singapore does have is incredible street food. Ask Anthony Bourdain, who's show "No Reservations" has filmed here multiple times. Or ask us! 

We were lucky enough to find a seat at this very crowded "restaurant." Liz was a little apprehensive at the open propane powering every table's stove and cook pot, but this many Singaporeans couldn't be wrong, so we sat down and had some incredible Tom Yam soup, along with an amazing array of things you grill yourself on tinfoil--prawns, salmon, white-fish, chicken, fish balls, eggs, bok choi, and bacon-wrapped sprouts (obviously, since bacon was involved, Liz couldn't get enough of these). 

When we had thoroughly gorged ourselves to well past our stomach capacity, we got some ice cream and waddled home (there were no wheelbarrows available). 

Thursday, June 7, 2012


A sunset from the Biri Islands in the Philippines.
The traveling life, it's not always paradise and pina coladas. No, really, it's not!

For example, there are days when you spend much of your time trying to get to wherever it is you're going, sometimes spending hours en route, rushing from bus to boat to motorcycle to taxi, and finally back to a boat that you find out doesn't really exist and you'll need to backtrack two towns to catch a bus somewhere else to another boat and...well, you get the picture.

Honestly though, even that stuff's not so bad. It may not always be comfortable, you may have to help hold someone's rooster or week-old baby (we've done both), and a trip that should take a couple hours could take two days. In the end, we usually end up exhausted and in need of a shower and a change of clothes. 

We're not looking for pity, mind you. These marathon journeys do sometimes end up with views like the one shown above. But for those of you who are interested, below are the photos and various modes of transportation it took for us to arrive at the Biri Islands from another island called San Antonio less than 150 miles away.
Take a 7 am banca boat/ferry/outrigger from San Antonio Island to the big island of Samar. 
Take a "bike" from the port to the main road. All prices negotiable, if you're lucky.
Enjoying the scenery while waiting for a local bus, called a jeepney. "One will come," we're assured.
Our chariot arrived. We flag it down, throw our luggage on top, Liz squeezes in...
No room for Kip inside. He climbs up top with the coffee and spare tires. It's 11:30 am and 90 degrees.
Jeepney drops us somewhere. We're told to take a tricycle (motorcycle with a side-car) to the pier two towns over. It's after 1 pm.
At the pier in some town we can't pronounce. Negotiate for a boat to Biri. No boats are ready to leave yet. A few hours later, we strike up a conversation with a nice guy who it turns out is the mayor of Biri. He invites us to join him on his personal banca to the islands. SCORE!  It gets better...
The mayor, Jaime Garcia, Jr., our hero, tells us we're lucky because it's "fiesta day" where we're going. "Where are we going?" we ask. He takes us to Glenda's B&B (that's Glenda above), friends of his who were hosting a celebratory feast and also had a room available. Against their better judgement, they were even willing to rent it to us.

And that's how we got to see one of the most stunning sunsets over a volcano we've ever seen. Did we mention we like sunsets?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


One of the Petronas Towesr at night.
Hello from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We finally made it out of the Philippines (again) and caught a short flight to "KL," as it's known here. Had to see the famous Petronas Towers, formerly the world's tallest skyscraper (it's now the Burj, in Dubai), get a $5 foot massage, and eat some of the city's famous street food.

Happy hour in Kuala Lumpur with a stellar view of the Petronas Towers. Thanks!

Dinner. You pick from a massive selection of kabobs. They grill it for you or you cook at your table. Solid concept.
Carrying a heavy pack is hard on the feet. Really! Not pictured...Kip was just off to Liz's left.
Next stop is southern Malaysia and Borneo if all goes as planned. 

Friday, June 1, 2012


Would you pay $20 to sleep in a 7' x 7' room with bunk beds and no bathroom/window/AC/TV in the middle of bustling Kuala Lumpur? 

You shouldn't. And normally, we wouldn't either. But 'one of us' made a slight error this morning booking the bus to Singapore, which is five hours south of here. 

Instead of getting tickets for today, as planned/discussed/agreed/argued over, Kip somehow purchased two nonrefundable and unchangeable seats for tomorrow. After we had checked out of our hotel. And of course, it's Friday, and it just happens to be a national holiday in Malaysia.

Do things like this ever happen to you? They happen to us. A lot.

Like the time we went to Costa Rica. Kip got a sweet deal online for a rental car in San Jose, which is the country's capital. Turns out, San Jose is also a large city in California where the car company also does business. It's also where some benevolent rental agent is probably still holding an economy sized car reservation for us in case we ever go there.

Once the rental car was sorted out, we stopped to get gas and use the ATM. We got some snacks for the road, and went to pay.  The cashier just said "more" as Kip held out a pile of cash he'd just taken out of the ATM.  1200 Colones sure sounded like a lot. Turns out, it's only about $2.  As Kip walked back to the cash machine, he vowed to check the exchange rates from then on.

But wait, don't go thinking Liz is the perfect travel partner. On the same Costa Rica trip, two days before we were set to fly back home, we were relaxing on a stunning Pacific beach a full day's drive from the airport in San Jose. Liz says something like, "Honey, I really wish we didn't have to go home tomorrow."
Kip, all-knowing that he is, said, "Slim, my dear, luckily we don't have to go so soon, since our flights are for the day AFTER tomorrow."

High drama ensues. Liz finds her ticket. Kip finds his. We had booked our tickets separately but while on the phone together with two different agents (long story). Somehow, Liz booked her flight a day earlier than she was supposed, Kip got to drive back a day early and spend the night in San Jose. Which is in Costa Rica, by the way.