Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Growing rice, up close and personal.
Heading up Laos' Nam Ou river, a seven-hour boat journey from Luang Prabang is the sleepy town of Nong Khiew. Being that we have grown wise in our travels, we knew that while scenic, a seven hour trip seated on a wooden plank with our knees up near our ears--the only way to travel by water to get to the village--didn't sound all that great. So, we opted for the local bus...only three hours and less than half the price (see how smart/cheap we've become!).

The entire town is located along the river, with a huge bridge spanning the rushing red water. Limestone cliffs tower overhead with lush jungle in between, skirted by an eerie fog that hangs around in the early mornings. We managed to find a hotel room whose main features included a constant leak in the ceiling and a resulting massive puddle in the middle of the floor...but the place also had a balcony and a hammock with amazing views! The balcony was crucial, since it rained the entire time (it is monsoon season, after all) and it was nice to get away from the puddle now and then.

Just an hour farther up the Nam Ou is the even smaller village of Muang Ngoi Nuea (don't ask us how to pronounce this either...Liz got it wrong every time, resulting in us almost getting on a bus bound for the Chinese border). The settlement is accessible only by boat and has electricity for just a few hours each day. Supposedly, the power comes on at 6 and goes off at 10, but in reality, it came on around 7:30 and went off at 9.

While the tiny town itself had little to see, the highlight of Muang Ngoi is a trek along the trails where no motorized vehicles have gone. One morning, Liz headed out for the village of Ban Na, a 45-minute walk into the mountains. On the way she met a very outgoing, 20-year-old rice farmer named "Eh" (not sure how to write that in English, but this must be close).

Eh looking for snakes on the trail through the rice paddies.
Eager to practice his limited English, Eh offered to accompany Liz on her way and showed her a shortcut through the rice paddies, which were incredibly slippery from all the rain. Eh quickly learned how to say “slip and fall," since Liz did exactly that every few minutes along the trails.

Between her graceful falls, Liz learned a phrase in Lao that her new friend Eh thought was very important: “Wait for me!”

He explained that, “If you are in the toilet at the bus station and you hear the motor of your bus start up, you can shout this to the driver and he must wait for you.”

Hard to argue with that logic.

While that exact circumstance hasn't happened (yet), it's been priceless to see the faces of the local transport drivers when we step smilingly into a bus, boat, tuk-tuk, or taxi and say in near-perfect Lao, "Wait for me!"

Now if we could just learn to say, "Where's the bathroom?"

Six muddy water buffalo squeezed into a small pool.
Boats on the Nam Ou river, and the bridge of Nong Khiew.
An albino water buffalo. We thought they were rare, but saw many in Laos.

Monday, July 30, 2012


While traveling around Southeast Asia for the past few months, we've met an exceptionally high number of people who speak English as well or better than we do. That said, English is a complicated language, and the meanings of certain words or phrases often get lost in translation for some non-native speakers. Take the sign above, for example--this beauty was posted on the lawn of the Patuxai, or "victory gate" in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. We're thinking this was more what they were going for. Although, googling "passing a grass" for alternative meanings gave Liz a good laugh. 

Friday, July 27, 2012


It's monsoon season in southeast Asia, which means it rains just about every day here in Laos. Despite the frequent downpours, life goes on, as seen above as a young mother tries to stay dry while taking her two kids to school. It's hard to imagine a scene like this would go over well with authorities back home, but driving one-handed while holding an umbrella (or a baby or lunch or a live farm animal) and transporting multiple small children passes for normal parenting in Laos--and many other countries in the world. 

Friday, July 20, 2012


Novice Sing, one of our many English students at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang, Laos.
A novice monk in bright orange robes points to a word in a children’s book and asks Kip, “How do you pronounce this?”

“Motorcycle,” Kip responds slowly, “do you have one?”

“No, we are not allowed to ride the motorcycles or the bicycles either,” he says in hesitant English. As a monk in training, he and other novices are forbidden to ride either modes of transport. “But we watch television at night sometimes. And I have a phone!” He pulls out a bright purple Nokia that clashes as terribly with his robes as one would think it did with his Buddhist lifestyle.

Liz and one of her 'students.'
Meanwhile, Liz was sitting with a group of three 16-year-old boys, two who spoke perfect English, and probably just came to hang out, since school is out until September. The third, another novice monk, was so nervous to speak he shook with every question, but was encouraged by the other two who constantly interjected with swear words and phrases like, “maybe later it will rain cats and dogs.”

We were teaching English to students in Luang Prabang, a UNESCCO World Heritage Center in northern Laos. We teamed up with an organization called Big Brother Mouse, a local non-profit that found a fun, innovative way to help local kids learn to read in their native language, while also teaching them to speak English. They also provide kids a place to hang out for a few hours and stay out of trouble. 

Kip, friend Chris, and Novice Sing.
In Luang Prabang, a historic city whose architecture and cultural heritage attract thousands of tourists from around the world, Big Brother Mouse has turned its “office,” a small two-story wooden structure that used to be someone’s house, into a free language learning center for kids. The group invites English speaking visitors like us to drop by any day of the week to sit down and talk with locals who want to learn the language.

The main goal of the organization is to improve literacy rates throughout Laos. The organization writes, illustrates and publishes children’s books in Lao language then distributes them, via travelers, to remote parts of the country where books and libraries are rarely found. It’s a brilliant and cost-effective (free) concept that seems to be working well for everyone involved. 

We had a great time interacting with the students, who ranged from the aforementioned novice monk to rural school children to young college students who hoped to someday work in the tourism industry. A big thanks to our friend Chris, who showed us up by bringing donations for the kids all the way from Oslo!
Liz and the sign out front at Big Brother Mouse HQ. 

For more information on Big Brother Mouse or to make a donation, visit their website at www.bigbrothermouse.com. From what we’ve seen, they’re doing great work in Laos.

Now we’re on our way to deliver Big Brother Mouse books we purchased to school children in the outlying villages near Phonsovan, famous for a collection of mysteriously-massive jars created some 2,000 years ago, as well as for being home to thousands of unexploded ordinance left over from U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War.

We’ll have more on that later.

Our second day at Big Brother Mouse. No, Liz's hair isn't that blond. Liz is the fourth person on the left.
Liz holding a selection of the children's books we're delivering to children near Phonsovan, Laos.
The sign at Big Brother Mouse HQ in Luang Prabang.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Rouging it in celebration of three months on the road...at the "hilltop" pool of the Demai Beach Resort in Borneo.
We like to celebrate stuff. You're shocked, no doubt.

To mark three months of us being on the road, and to leave Borneo in style, we decided to splurge on a nice hotel. But not just any nice hotel. This one was an actual resort (very unlike the "jungle resort" dormitory in Mulu), complete with AC, satellite TV, hot water, fresh towels, a clean beach and even a pool with a view and a waterfall. And as one of its activities for guests, in typical Bornean fashion, staff was on hand to teach visitors how to shoot a blow gun. 

We arrived way before check-in. We left the next day well after check out (ok, maybe we lounged at the pool until we were "asked" to leave, but we had to take it all in!). 

Life's hard on the road. No really!

Big thanks to everyone who made this incredible luxury possible: Harold "H" M, Momma Z, Aimee, Lori M, Mrs. Joyce P, Eliza "Lil" V, Dan S, Brian T, Nikki Nik G, Monica H, Lindsay N, Jessica R, and Kacey C. 

Next update from Laos, land of the kip.

Mandatory gratuitous swimsuit photo. Try to ignore Liz's farmer tan.
Playing in the waterfall.
Stuntman Kip, as always, takes a dive into the shallow end.
Enjoying the hilltop pool.  There were 1000 steps to get up there.
Only after we arrived did we realize there was a shuttle...typical rookie mistake.
This is what side of the fence you end up on when you have to leave the resort.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Kip a half mile deep in Deer Cave in Mulu National Park. 
Borneo is a land of extremes--towering, jagged limestone peaks, some of the most lethal plants and animals alive, not to mention the island's history of cannibalism, which may or may not have ended as recently as the 1990s, depending on who you talk to.

Another extreme here--caves. Carved from porous limestone underneath acres and acres of dense jungle lives one of the world's largest cave systems. Among all that empty underground space sits the Earth's largest cave, or at least what used to be called that.

Until recently, Gunung Mulu World Heritage Area in the north central part of the island boasted that its Deer Cave was the planet's biggest. However, explorers recently uncovered a larger one in Vietnam...but since no one is allowed to visit the "new" one yet, we'll bask in the glory of our visit to one unbelievably massive hole in the ground.

Mulu, as folks call it here, is an isolated area unreachable by road. Visitors either travel by foot and boat for three days along the "Headhunter Trail" (yes, headhunting parties used this path) or they can fly in on a small propeller plane where you practically sit with the pilot, which is the option we went with due to time constraints.

Grabbing our packs at the Mulu airport baggage claim, we were greeted by a man holding a sign with Liz's name on it. This was a first for the trip. Since lodging is limited around the park, we had booked ahead to be sure we had a room to sleep in, but we didn't expect this kind of service, even if the place was called the Mulu River Lodge. Reality set in quickly, however.

After a short, dusty ride with our bags in the back of a 4x4 pickup, we arrived at the "lodge," only to find that our reservation at what sounded like a really nice jungle hotel was actually for three nights in two single beds in a dorm with 25 of our new closest friends. Regretfully, we have no photo of this room, but the beds were close enough for your neighbor's breath to fog up your eyelids, and the scent of all the hiking boots and sweaty clothes could torch nose hairs.

While the sleeping arrangements were lacking, the beauty of our one-room hotel was its location--just 50 feet away was a rickety wood and cable suspension bridge that led across a rushing river to Mulu's entrance.

Kip was also excited because the place was surrounded by countless species of Borneo's colorful butterflies, including Brooke's Birdwing, one of the world's largest (photo at left), which flew past our breakfast table every morning we were there
In the days that followed, we crisscrossed the nearby bridge morning and night checking out the park's highlights, which included the aforementioned Deer Cave, Langs Cave, miles of nature trails, waterfalls, morning treks, night hikes, and our favorite, the park's world famous "Bat Exodus," which features some three million bats soaring from Deer Cave every evening to start their nightly hunt.

From lethal animals to massive caves to smelly dorms, the land of extremes delivered all we could imagine and then some. It's going to be hard to leave this place.

Liz explores Langs Cave in Mulu National Park. 
Caving with Abe Lincoln?
The bat exodus begins. 
That's one big tree.
Doing the "Sky Walk" canopy tour.
Another species of the deadly Bornean Pit Viper we saw on a walk through the park.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


A group of skaters poses with us in front of yet another cat statue in Kuching, the "Cat City."
Although we have been to many places in Borneo, we have yet to find one with so many statues, stores, monuments, and T-shirts dedicated to one particular animal. In the city of Kuching, which derives its name from the Malay word for "cat," you can't walk more than a few feet without running into a massive statue or a store selling hundreds of types of trinkets dedicated to felines. They even have a cat museum

So we thought that any place as wacky as this deserves a Top 10 list of why you have to love it.

1. Crazy cat statues, everywhere.  Really, everywhere.

2. Marco Polo Guesthouse. Mr. Tan and his wife treated us like family, and we enjoyed every minute of staying with them. And, they told Liz that she speaks English very well.  She was pleased. The place would've only been better if there had been a feline reference in the name. 

3. Beautiful markets in Little India. And the fact that beans are also sold as "Gold Bouillon."

4. Borneo Delight. This restaurant is amazing, and not just because of its coffee and food. More importantly, they let us utilize their restroom on back-to-back days when our lunches (eaten elsewhere) decided to make very quick and unexpected exits. Without going into more detail, we are forever indebted.

5. Close proximity to Bako National Park, Semmengoh Wildlife Reserve, and a few additional places we wish we had time to visit, including the home of the world's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which smells like rotting meat. 

6.  Because this is the only place Kip can dork out rock out on a handmade Hornbill guitar.

7. Top Spot Food Court. It's a seafood market on top of a parking lot in downtown Kuching that offers up some of the freshest and strangest fish around. However, on our last visit, Kip found a roach crawling on his lap. Liz laughed, until one crawled up her neck. Still, we'd eat there again.  

8. Good Corner Cafe. Not only does this place feature an incredible chicken rice dish for $1.25, but they also have the cheapest beer in Malaysia. "Happy Hour 24 hours," as the owner says. 

9. Because only the Cat City could make this picture possible. 
10. The amazingly beautiful sunsets on the riverfront.  We are obviously big sunset fans, and Kuching does not disappoint.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


A baby orangutan hangs high above the ground in Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
Ever wanted to see an orangutan in the jungle? If so, Borneo's the place to do it.

Home to more than 90 percent of the world's orangutan population, Borneo is the only spot, other than the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where the ginger-colored apes live in the wild.
Since Kip often acts like a big ape, at least according to his lovely wife, he really wanted to see one, perhaps to look for behavioral similarities, perhaps to learn a few new circus tricks for his ever-growing repertoire. We also felt it would be a fitting tribute to the species itself, since Duchess, the oldest Bornean orangutan in North America, died just the week before in the Phoenix Zoo (from cancer at the age of 52).

From Kuching, we hopped a bus to the Semenggoh Wildlife Center less than an hour south. Since 1975, the Center has taken in orangutans and other animals that have either been orphaned, found injured in the forest, or were previously kept as illegal pets. It's now one of the best places on the planet to get up close and personal with wild orangutans.
Feeding time in Borneo's Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Kip has since tried, quite unsuccessfully, to eat like this.
There are no cages or fences, so wildlife sightings aren't guaranteed. However, regular feeding times provide fairly predictable wildlife viewing opportunities while ensuring the orangutans have the food they need until they're able to fend for themselves in the Semmengoh Nature Reserve, which conveniently surrounds the Center. We got extremely lucky during our visit when a female walked slowly out of the trees carrying her recently-born baby on her back. As Mom ate, the curious baby climbed down and, after a few glances up at his mother to make sure he was OK, started playing like a little kid at his first visit to a playground. 

Fun times.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


"What you lookin' at?"  The "fashion statement" above is not one of us. Promise.
We weren't really planning on coming here, at least not when this trip started three months ago. Now, we can't seem to leave. And no, it's not because we accidentally booked a flight for the wrong month (that hasn't happened...yet).

After the sharks in Sipadan, the pygmy elephants in Kinabatangan, and the jazz in KK, we figured we had hit most of Borneo's highlights. We were so wrong.

The latest natural wonder: the wildlife of Bako National Park. The place is a lazy-man's paradise for those looking to get up close and personal with some truly exotic and wild animals without really trying. Just an hour north by bus and boat outside of Kuching, the island's largest city (a fun, scenic destination on its own), Bako is home to herds of the typically-shy bearded pig, birds galore, numerous pit vipers, two types of flying lemur, and all kinds of monkeys that will stare at you, ignore you, and if you're not careful, steal a fried egg off your breakfast plate while you're watching (ask Liz. That actually happened).

Male proboscis monkey on a hot tin roof.
Silver leaf monkey eating a fresh bud.
During a short walk along the raised boardwalks of the park, you'll likely spot all the aforementioned animals, and even more with the help of one of Bako's knowledgeable guides. There are no cages or feeding times, but an abundance of fruit trees combined with safe habitat and long-ago established conservation areas (est.1957) makes the area around HQ a hub of animal activity.

While the sightseeing is incredible, the lodging  leaves a little to be desired. We slept in a four-bed dorm room that smelled like a group of monkeys had been locked in there for a week. Combine that with the 90 degree weather, and the daytime smell was enough to make you want to turn around and go home. But then you see a group of wild pigs walk by, and some monkeys jump around in the trees, and you forget about the smell (you actually don't, but it sounds nice, right?).

ABOVE: A baby bearded pig gives Liz's hand a curious sniff.

LEFT: Liz poses with a posse of bearded pigs just off the porch.

We liked the place so much, we stayed three nights to allow time to hike some of the many miles of well-maintained trails that venture up rocky slopes, over sandy plateaus and down to beaches as empty as they are stunning.

The pristine beach that rewards hikers after a two-hour trek from Bako HQ.
Enjoying the views and the water before heading back up the trail. 

This is a real sign at Bako National Park. 
This one is, too. 

PHOTOS ABOVE: giant black scorpion; snake eating a lizard;
Borneo pit viper; and a red dragonfly.

The sun sets over Bako National Park in western Borneo.