Quick Trip to Singapore

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

In early August, I needed to make a quick mid-week trip to Singapore to spend a couple days in our regional office. It was my second time to the nation-state, where I had spent two weeks for work a few years back. Julie had never been, though, and I was looking forward to getting a second opinion of the place.

My memory from my last time there was that Singapore’s … fine. There’s nothing offensive, everything’s clean and safe, and there’s good public transportation. People walk around with confidence that they’re in an important place, and it’s genuinely impressive what the country has pulled off in just 50 years (it used to be a part of Malaysia) and how it has established itself as an attractive Asian outlet for western corporations. But it all comes at a steep price, and I don’t just mean that the cost of everything rivals London or New York. It’s all just a little too Disneyland, and it doesn’t come close to the pulse of Jakarta, Bangkok, Saigon, or even KL.

Julie explored the botanic gardens and the Marina Bay area (and took great photos, of course), while I spent a couple days in the office and met her for dinner and $20 cocktails at a hard-to-find secret bar that required a password (though it’s worth noting that the first person we asked told us how to get in, so the secret’s not so secret).08-12-16_singapore_0021All was perfectly nice, and it would be fun to have explored a bit longer. But by the time we left, we were also happy that when we were relocated to Asia, we ended up in Malaysia and not Singapore.08-12-16_singapore_000608-12-16_singapore_001008-12-16_singapore_001208-12-16_singapore_002508-12-16_singapore_0029

Dry and Hot in Bangkok

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

Alright, this is out of hand. We’re so behind that we have two different trips to Bangkok that warrant posts. We’re so behind that we’ll have moved back to the States (details to come) before we will have caught up. But catch up we will. And it begins now.

With my birthday on the horizon, we made a last-minute decision in early August to spend a weekend in Bangkok. It’s a city I visited on my own while traveling for work a couple years ago, and I had been talking it up to Julie ever since. There’s an energy, beauty, and tradition in Bangkok that I hadn’t experienced before, and I was eager to share.

We left on a Friday after work, and arrived late in the evening in the rain at our formerly-modern hotel before dropping our bags and heading to a restaurant reservation at Eat Me that Julie arranged as a birthday celebration. The place was still popping off at 10 pm, and we savored every bite and sip. A meal to remember for sure. After dinner, we walked to the Vertigo Bar for a late-night drink on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel. We didn’t know it at the time, but it would be our last proper drink of the weekend.

We started Saturday at the sprawling Chatuchak Market where we got lost in the rows and rows and rows of leather shops, massage parlors, food stalls, craft stores, t-shirt vendors, and shoe shops. We could’ve spent hours there, but we had other stuff to see. We went across the street for some pork ribs and other fuel at the Or Tor Kor Market and then braved the heat.08-07-16_bangkok_000308-07-16_bangkok_000108-07-16_bangkok_0004The first stop was the spectacular Wat Pho, famous for a massive reclining buddha, but we were just as impressed by the seemingly endless assortment of temples. With our bodies ferociously converting the water we drank into sweat, we boarded a boat to Wat Arun, on the other side of the river from Wat Pho. After another boat ride and a disappointing meal, we conceded defeat to the sun and headed back to the hotel for a brief stint at the pool and a much-needed shower.08-07-16_bangkok_000808-07-16_bangkok_001508-07-16_bangkok_002808-07-16_bangkok_003108-07-16_bangkok_003608-07-16_bangkok_003208-07-16_bangkok_0041Rested and refreshed, we headed to Soul Food, a restaurant recommended to us by friends who lived in Bangkok for three years. We were promised delicious food and even more delicious cocktails. The plan was to then head to one of several bars we had researched and maybe even make it to Khao San Road, the party mecca of Bangkok, if we had the energy.

Upon arrival, we received a major curve ball. Actually, not just a curve ball, this was a knuckle curve. Turns out we had planned our trip to Bangkok — the city where anything goes, where you can meet lady boys and drink at all hours, where Hangover 2 was filmed, the city where David Carradine allegedly died of supposed auto-erotic asphyxiation — on the eve of an election. And it turns out that when there’s an election in Thailand, no booze is allowed starting at 6 pm the night before.

So that was pretty much it for the night. The food at Soul Food was delicious, but you’ll have to read the next Bangkok post to learn about the cocktails. By 10 pm, we were back at the hotel watching Everest, which we borrowed from the lobby downstairs. I was asleep before Jake Gyllenhaal started the assent from base camp.

The next morning, we walked to the Jim Thompson House, a place I had visited during my first trip to Bangkok. It’s an old Thai house that was built by an American who moved to the area after World War II, fell in love with the local culture and started a silk trading business. He died of mysterious causes while hiking in Malaysia, but his house has been preserved and sits in a quiet corner on the bank of a canal.

We walked back to the hotel to grab our things and then headed to the airport. It was a short trip that wasn’t exactly what either of us were picturing, but a wonderful birthday nonetheless. I continue to be amazed by Bangkok and can’t wait to return.

Bangkok, part deux will come eventually, but Singapore is next.

 

Weekend in Hong Kong

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

A little over a week after my parents left, Julie and I hopped over to Hong Kong for a quick work trip and an opportunity to visit my cousin Grace, who was interning for the summer. It was our first time in Hong Kong and we were eager to take in what had been described (accurately) as an incomparable city.07-23-16_HongKong_0012.jpgThe first day, we leisurely walked around, hoping to take the train up to Victoria Peak. When met with an immovable and seemingly endless line, we called an audible and went to another Hong Kong mainstay, the Ladies Market. Brimming with knickknacks and vendors offering the best prices (ones they’re always willing to lower), we somehow made it through with just a couple small purchases. That evening, we had a lovely dinner outside with Grace in an area she knew for its boutique shops in the Central district.

We met early the next morning for another run at Victoria Peak and beat the crowds. The views atop the mountain were stunning, though we were a little disappointed to discover that Victoria Peak is not just the name of the tallest point in Hong Kong; it is also the name of a mall, brimming with Starbucks, Bubba Gump Shrimp, and Burger King. Back at sea level, we stopped for a quick breakfast at a Michelin-starred dim sum place Grace knew about and made our way to the harbor.07-23-16_HongKong_0011.jpgIt’s a silly thought in hindsight and after a glance at a map, but Hong Kong is surrounded by small, gorgeous, easily-accessible islands. Grace had one on her list, so we hopped aboard a boat and were on Cheung Chau in about 30 minutes. The place was so small and removed from the bigness of Hong Kong that it was easy to forget that it could easily be (and surely is) a commuting island, not much different from a suburb. The heat was oppressive and we weren’t prepared to sit on the beach, so we ended up walking around, through the narrow streets and past small pagodas, eventually arriving at a large cemetery. After just a couple hours in the sun, we were ready to head back, though not before a quick stop for some absurdly good mango mochi.07-23-16_HongKong_0016.jpg07-23-16_hongkong_002007-23-16_hongkong_0021That evening we had a way too expensive drink atop one of the many giant buildings affording us a view Hong Kong island and the nightly light show. We topped it off with Peking Duck at Spring Deer, a Hong Kong institution that my dad recommended.

One day later, after a day in the office, we were on our way. It was a short trip, but we packed a lot in and it was wonderful to see Grace. We left impressed. The only city we could think to compare it to is New York, but even New York feels spacious compared to Hong Kong. It was especially stunning in contrast to our recent exploration of Angkor Wat; two incredible human achievements, built 900 years apart from each other.

We spent the rest of the week in Tokyo, where we were joined by friend and colleague Dominic Self, who beat us to this post by more than two months, and continues to inspire with his tenacious blogging.  We showed Dom a few of our favorite Tokyo restaurants and hung with some work friends. It was a busy week at the office for Dom and me, but a third reminder for us that Tokyo is a remarkable place. We can’t wait for the next trip.

Tokyo-22-624x405.jpg
Courtesy of Dominic Self

Love, War, and Religion — Covering a Lot of Ground

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

After Edith, Emmanuel, and Clara left, Julie and I managed to get through our longest time separated from each other, which came to a conclusion when I met her in Chicago. We spent a wonderful week seeing friends and family (though not Willow — sad face); visiting our favorite neighborhoods; and generally enjoying being outside and on sidewalks (this is a luxury people in the US take for granted).

That trip — our first back to the States since moving — was a wonderful reminder of what we love and miss about our home country, and how certain and excited we are to return soon. But it also made us realize we have more to do and see in SE Asia. And it served as a perfect bridge between our first and second guests in KL.

Just a few days after returning, we greeted my parents who spent their 42nd anniversary in the air for 24 hours for a two-week tour of Vietnam, Cambodia, and KL.

Ho Chi Minh City

Less than a day after Mom and Dad arrived, we headed back to the airport to board the plane to Ho Chi Minh City (the trip to the airport alone was an epic 2.5-hour journey in rush hour filled with debate about turning back and booking a flight for the next day only to have us arrive at the check-in curb 10 minutes before take off … and still we made it).07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0032.jpgWe got in late and hungry and set out to find banh mi. Struggling to order at the street market that seemed to have already closed, we landed on some mysterious but delicious looking food. We passed beers and sandwiches around on the sidewalk nearby and once our bellies were full, we strolled back to the hotel, observing the city along the way.

One thing was immediately clear: we would always have to be on our toes. Stop lights don’t mean the same thing in HCMC that they do in other places and the right of way is nothing more than a theoretical concept. The constant game of Frogger was something we learned, but never totally adjusted to.

Our first full day was an emotionally-taxing tour of the damage done by the Vietnam War. The complicated mix of guilt for the colonialism perpetrated by our homeland combined with the memories my parents have of their lives during the war mixed with the propaganda and pride of the locals created a lot of sighs, head shaking and quiet tears among the group.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0023a.jpgWe started at the Cu Chi Tunnels, an elaborate underground maze 45 km outside the city where Vietnamese defended their homes and farms against the French and then the Americans for decades, using rudimentary weapons, cunning, resilience, and the power of surprise. They burrowed 10 feet underground for months at a time, avoiding bombs and attacking when the enemy dared to come on foot. We lowered ourselves into these man-made caves, and crawled on our hands and knees. The claustrophobia made a crowded rush-hour L ride feel like a breath of fresh air.

From there, we returned to Saigon for a tour of the War Remnants Museum, a three-floor chronicle of the war as a triumph of the Vietnamese over the West. It was complete with graphic images of the effects of Agent Orange, monuments to heroes, and no mention that we saw of any internal conflict about the war.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0001 copy07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0005 copy07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0004aAfter all that, we needed  a beer.

The next day and a half, we walked through oppressive heat and equally oppressive streets, talking through my parent’s memories of the war, stopping at pagodas, the church where Ngo Dinh Diem was captured, and markets.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0009.jpgOn the morning we were set to depart, we searched for and (eventually) found a commissioned art district where the walls were covered with graffiti, serving as a backdrop for the groups of millennials with selfie sticks.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_003507-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0036A trip back to the hotel to pack, a brief stop for pho, and it was time to head north.

Hanoi

We landed in Hanoi in time for a quick check in at the historic Metropole — where bouquets of lotus flowers and a painting by Joan Baez greeted us — and headed for a late dinner at a speakeasy around the corner that’s run by a former NPR reporter.

The difference between the two cities was clear from that nighttime walk. The streets were walkable, the pace slower. And unlike HCMC, which bangs you on the head with the frenetic relics of Saigon, there is a calm pride encircling Hanoi. If Saigon was Jackson Pollock, Hanoi was Monet.

The next morning started with a clockwise walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, the pond/lake that marks the epicenter of the city’s Old Quarter. Our two days were leisurely, marked by stops in silk shops and cafes as we dodged the rain. We sat on the balcony of the Metropole for evening cocktails, banged our knees on the metal bar at Pho Thin while slurping the amazingly complex local cuisine, toured the prison that housed John McCain and other POWs, and moseyed through temples.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0046 copy.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0044.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0051.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0058.jpgOf course there was the requisite trip to visit Uncle Ho as well. After attempting to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum one day, only to find out that Uncle Ho only sees guests in the morning, we took in his museum in the giant Soviet structure nearby. The exhibits were inexplicably inexplicable. There was a room-size brain that was supposed to symbolize something and a giant abstract kids’ table with oversized fruit that looked like it would be more appropriate in a Van Gogh painting. Whatever the intended meaning of the exhibits, we learned nothing from the experience and left laughing.

We made it to the mausoleum the next day where Uncle Ho was waiting for us and the forcefully silent, single-file line of tourists, quickly marching around the room where he lies in a transparent casket. The absurdity of the process almost matched the impressive display of idolatry.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0049 copy.jpgYes, there’s more. Cambodia awaits.

Siem Reap

From the landing strip at the Siem Reap airport, it was clear we were in a different corner of SE Asia. The honking scooters on wide paved roads were replaced by three-wheeled tuk tuks on narrow dirt roads. The poverty of the area caught us all by surprise.

The town is built around the stunning temples, anchored by Angkor Wat, with dozens of others surrounding the area. The city itself is a monument to Cambodia’s heyday, a 900 year-old display of Khmer power.

We opted for two days of guided tours, starting early in the morning at Angkor Wat. Like the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall, the scale of Angkor Wat is indescribable. We walked through the center of the temple, climbed to the top of one of the recognizable corn-cob towers, and heard the tales of the 40,000 elephants and 10 million sandstone blocks (each weighing 1.5 tons) that make up the structure. From there, we went to Ta Prohm. None of us counted, but I’d wager that our tour guide said “Tomb Raider” 47 times as he showed us around the temple that was used in the movie. Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been restored and analyzed at great length, the thrill of Ta Prohm is the feeling that you just walked into the woods and found something no one has seen in centuries. Stones dot the perimeter, having fallen from years of storms; trees grow through the structure, their roots interconnected with the man-made temple.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_006907-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_006607-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0086.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0101.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0106.jpgOn our second day, we started at Bayon, which stands at the center of what was the empire’s capital city in the 13th century. Buddha faces (no less than 216 of ’em) surrounded us as we climbed and weaved our way through. We saw five or six temples in all, but I think we were all most impressed by Bayon.07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0119.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0140.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0139 copy.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0128 copy.jpg07-10-16_Cambodia-Vietnam_0148.jpgThere wasn’t much else to do in Siem Reap. We had a memorable dinner at a small, family-run restaurant and drank coffee at a shop owned by an Australian couple who traveled to Siem Reap five years ago and never left. By the end, though, we were all ready to be done with the trip.

Back in KL

Since we left KL so quickly after my parents arrived, it was nice to have a few days to show them around our home. We celebrated Mom’s birthday with a gin and tonic and dinner in Bangsar, went up the Petronas Towers, took a tour of the Groupon office, and everyone but me saw the Bird Park.07-13-16_KL_0005.jpgIt was an incredible couple of weeks. We got to see new countries with a pair of great travel partners. It was also a rare time to spend one on one with my parents. At a time when Julie and I are discussing and learning what we want to do with our lives, we felt lucky to spend time with two of our role models.

First Visitors

Written by Robert, photographed by a strong group effort

Toward the end of May (yes, we’re still that behind), we had the opportunity to share some of our favorite experiences since moving to Malaysia when my sister Edith, her husband Emmanuel, and their daughter Clara came in for a 10-day visit. Seeing everything again and seeing others react (especially when one of those is your 9-month-old niece) gave us new insight and appreciation for this country.

Julie was only in town for the first part of the trip, and she showed our guests around KL while I maintained my work schedule. This included past Smoking Adapters highlights like Batu Caves, Bukit Nanas, Merdeka Square, and Precious for some delicious Nonya cuisine. One evening I met everyone at HeliBar after work so we could all experience the sunset from a helicopter landing pad on the 34th floor of a downtown building. Following that, we headed to Jalan Alor to eat street food, buy a selfie stick, and smell durian, all essential on the list for anyone visiting KL.05-26-16_KL_000305-26-16_KL_000805-26-16_KL_001105-26-16_KL_0013The Dietz/Opati clan whisked off to Pangkor Laut midway through their first week for some well-earned relaxation, and Julie left for Chicago. When EE&C rescued me from my loneliness, the four of us boarded a short flight to Penang for the weekend.

We stayed in a really cool boutique hotel in the center of Georgetown and bummed around, spending our time alternating between sampling the amazing local food and waiting for Clara to wake up from a nap. Because Julie wasn’t with us, the number of photos and the quality of the ones we have are lacking. But Clara makes up for a lot of photographic failings.IMG_0200.JPGSpeaking of Clara, there were tons of milestones on the trip: first flight, first swim, first time eating noodles (I sincerely believe that one who hasn’t seen Clara eat noodles is missing out on one of the joys of life), first time to Asia for Clara’s parents. What a testament to this family that our first visitors to make the 24-hour flight were two first-time parents and a first-time flier. They were troopers. Julie and I are still in awe of their positivity, curiosity, and eagerness to not let challenges slow them down. It was inspiring to witness.

Kitchen of Japan

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

Less than a week after returning from Bali, I had to make a return trip to Tokyo for work (aw, shucks). Julie and I decided to use the opportunity to head to Osaka the weekend prior to the work week and explore a new city in the country that has been a revelation to us in our short time on this side of the world.

Known as the “Kitchen of Japan,” Osaka is billed as a city one should eat their way through. Ummm, OK, challenge accepted. Groggy from a red-eye flight, we arrived at our adorable AirBnB early in the afternoon on a Saturday. Julie found a spot between the stuffed animals to store our bags while I took a shower and somehow managed to keep one square inch of the bathroom dry.

Then we walked. We went through Dotonbori, the Times Square of the city that was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday afternoon, and landed on Orange Street, where coffee shops and boutiques line the sidewalk.

For our only dinner, we tried one of the city’s many sushi spots that food bloggers describe as not to be missed. It was as described, and we had a memorable meal that included the famous Otoro, or tuna belly. Our stomachs protruding, we headed for a drink at Moonshine, a local bar owned by a North Carolinian disguised as a local. He offered his homemade spirit and the opportunity to sing in front of his five patrons on the karaoke machine. We rejected both and instead left with the British school teacher and his young Osakan girlfriend for a later-than-expected evening of drinks and hookah. Somewhere on Facebook.com, there’s a picture of that proves all of this.05-22-16_Osaka-Tokyo_0001.jpgOn Sunday, we walked through the Kuromon Ichiba Market, where we tried the local favorite Takoyaki, which are golfball-sized cheesy dough filled with octopus, served with a mayonaissey sauce, green onions, and bonito flakes at a temperature of 400 million degrees (Celsius, Fahrenheit, whatever). We couldn’t quite muster the bravery for the tako tamago, the lollipop impersonators that are actually glazed baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed in their head.05-22-16_Osaka-Tokyo_0002.jpgWhile this post is rightfully focusing on our time in Osaka, it would be downright silly to skip past one of my favorite evenings since we arrived in SE Asia. Julie was kind enough to humor my inner child and accompany me to a baseball game on our last night in Tokyo. Sadly the most famous team in Japan, the Giants, were out of town, so we settled for a matchup between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Yokohama DeNA Baystars at Meiji Jingu Stadium. Here’s a mostly-unedited excerpt from an email I wrote to Todd Detmold, who asked for a summary of how Japan baseball differed from the American version:

  • You can bring food and beer into the game. And we did, though not enough beer.
  • When the Swallows score a run, everyone unfolds umbrellas and dances to the Swallows song.
  • The starting pitcher for the BayStars flew past the standard 100 pitches thrown in the US and finished at 142 pitches while also throwing in front of the dugout when his team was batting. Conclusion: American pitchers are weenies.
  • They have cheerleaders. And the 8-year-old boy in front of us — the one with a Swallows hat, a Swallows jersey, and TWO Swallows umbrellas stacked on top of each other — knew all of the dance moves and went right along with the cheerleaders.
  • You cheer when your team is up but are quiet when your team is in the field.
  • Julie and I now have Swallows hats, which we wore with pride following the 6-3 Swallows win.
  • The Orioles just signed a pitcher who has spent the last two years in Japan throwing for — wait for it, wait for it — the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.05-22-16_Osaka-Tokyo_0006.jpgIn between Osaka and the Swallows game, we ate all the sushi, drank all the whiskey, and continued to marvel at the wonderful Japanese people and their disciplined ways.

 

Balimoon, Part 2

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

Gili Air, days 7-9

After four nights in the center of the Bali, we were ready to head back to the beach. We awoke early in the morning to make the two-hour drive to the coast where we navigated the chaotic pier to find our boat to Gili Air. The tiny archipelago of Gili is made of three islands, too small to support motorized vehicles. Despite the remoteness, they are surrounded by impossibly blue waters that are home to some of the best diving sites on the planet.05-10-16_Bali099Upon arrival, we explored the eastern edge of Gili Air, past the many horses pulling people in carts, creating a stench that was out of place with the scenery. We were surprisingly disappointed by the lack of swimmable beaches. Because the islands are fortified by reef, the surf crashes well off the shore and there aren’t places to safely wade into the water. So, after a pretty miserable dinner experience at one of the island’s many less-than-mediocre restaurants, we decided that the best thing to do with our short time on Gili Air was to leave it and explore the water.

Neither of us are divers, but we spent our only full day on a snorkeling tour of the area. A pontoon boat picked us up in the morning and putzed over to the coast of Lombok, a neighboring island that seems ripe for becoming a future site of Four Seasons hotels. We made our way past the pearl farmers and anchored 1 km offshore, where we hopped into the ocean and effortlessly spotted the cast of Finding Nemo casually weaving through the reef 20 feet below. Following the swim, we landed on a nearby beach on the Lombok coast where we ate barbecue and sipped on coconuts that were chopped down with a borrowed machete by our captain moments earlier. A pretty damn good way to spend an afternoon.05-10-16_Bali07005-10-16_Bali075That evening, we found a restaurant on the western edge of the island, plopped down in the bean bags dotting the beach and watched the sun set over the other two Gili islands. We stayed until it closed, the power sporadically turning on and off as we sat with the breeze and watched people dig for clams under the moonlight at low tide.05-10-16_Bali07905-10-16_Bali084By the time our boat left the next afternoon, we were excited to hop aboard and head back to Bali.

Seminyak, days 9-11

Our last two days were at an AirBnB in Seminyak, the touristy part of Bali filled with beach clubs, restaurants, and shops. The main attraction for us was the private villa with its infinity pool, private driver and cook that awaited us. The place was incredible as we expected. 05-10-16_Bali10005-10-16_Bali101But we persevered, boarding our private car the next morning for more Balinese sites. We had a delicious lunch at a recommended spot in Seminyak, and then visited a temple and a Luwak coffee roaster. (Great question about Luwak coffee; probably shouldn’t just leave that sitting there. Luwaks are raccoon-like mammals that feast on ready-to-roast coffee beans. After they digest and excrete the beans, people pay a lot of money to drink the hot liquid that is produced from those digested and excreted beans. We, instead, sipped a free sample.)05-10-16_Bali08805-10-16_Bali09205-10-16_Bali094The last stop on our tour was of the most famous Balinese water temples. There are temples in the water off the coast of Bali, each within eyesight of the next, forming a wall of temples protecting the island. The one we saw was 10 km from Seminyak. As it was low tide, we were able to walk between the shore and the temple, and watch as the waves collide against the temple’s stone facade.05-10-16_Bali09605-10-16_Bali095We had another great meal in town that evening and spent the next day by the pool (in my case, reading; in Julie’s case, recuperating from a bout of food poisoning). 

And that was that. Eleven days in paradise. We saw a good mix of what the island had to offer, and were thrilled with the experience. The official honeymoon was in the books, while the unofficial one continues.

Balimoon, Part 1

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

With our move to Malaysia coming on the heels of our wedding, we’ve always considered the entirety of 2016 as a kind of honeymoon. And yet we still wanted a dedicated time to treat ourselves to a long break, an extended opportunity to both explore and relax. After months of destination consideration, we decided to head to Bali. It offered a variety of experiences that are rare to find all on one island and seemed the perfect place for us.

Armed with a day off from work to celebrate Labor Day, we were able to take an 11-day honeymoon while only needing to spend 5 days off. On a Friday afternoon in late April, we boarded a direct flight from KL to Bali. Just three hours later, we arrived in a place that attracts surfers, partiers, hippies, honeymooners, and families. But we also found an island inhabited by people that stay true to its rich history and way of life, deeply connected to the precious land, dedicated to their gods, and thankful to their ancestors.

We stayed in four different areas around Bali (including one venture to an island just of its coast). This is what we saw.05-10-16_Bali043Uluwatu, days 1-3

Located on the southern tip of Bali, Uluwatu is removed from the noisy club scene that caters to tourists. It’s a surfer’s paradise, with 1,000-foot cliffs dropping dramatically into the ocean, reminiscent of the California coast. 05-10-16_Bali017We were met at the airport by a driver from our AirBnB, who dodged stray dogs on the narrow roads leading up to our residence on the Bukit, which is the Buhasa word for hill. Once we arrived, he gave us the keys to our scooter and a tour of our private bungalow, equipped with a kitchen, living room, and bathroom, all of which were open air. The land is owned by a local artist, who re-located from Spain 33 years ago, attracted to the waves, the cheap cost of living, and the peacefulness that allowed him to focus on his art. The place was stunning but simple, and came with an infinity pool looking out over the ocean to the west that we took full advantage of. There was a rumor that others were staying the property, but we couldn’t validate this as we never saw anyone else. We had the place to ourselves.05-10-16_Bali002Over the next two days, we relaxed by the pool, on a popular beach, and at a club where we saw a sunset that had us both pinching ourselves. But the highlight was Nyang Nyang, a beach on the south end of the island that can only be found by those who venture down several turns off the main road and happen to see the painted arrow on the plank of wood at the end of the road next to the word “beach.” To get there, we hiked for 30 minutes down the cliff and finally across a 100-meter-long field past snakes, monkeys, and cows. But then we were alone with cliffs serving as bookends for the crystal blue water. We swam and chilled for two hours, and could count the number of people we saw using just one of our hands.05-10-16_Bali00105-10-16_Bali01305-10-16_Bali01105-10-16_Bali027Ubud, days 3-7

Having to part from Uluwatu is difficult unless your next destination is more Bali. For us that meant Ubud, an area 50 km from Uluwatu that is far from beaches and serves as a center of Balinese culture. The 2-hour drive took us to Bambu Indah, a hippie outpost where the vegetables are grown on property, the water coming out of the tap is drinkable, and the smell of incense is inescapable. All the rooms on the property are free-standing antique Javanese bridal houses collected from around the island. But only ours had flowers shaped in a heart greeting us as we walked in, congratulating us on our marriage. The property has a swimmable and unchlorinated river running through it and has a rope swing as an exclamation point. (I never mastered the flip off the rope and into the river, but I certainly tried a lot and came really close in my head.)05-10-16_Bali03005-10-16_Bali04205-10-16_Bali03905-10-16_Bali054Each day, we headed out on our scooter, looking for waterfalls and hikes, and the ride was often more stunning than the destination. In the shadow of the island’s volcano, we rode past small towns, each filled with their Hindu temples, separated by rice paddies. Off-scooter, the most memorable part was certainly Nungnung waterfall. The award for hiking down at least 2 million steps, Nungnung presented a stunning setting that we had to ourselves. Oh yeah, the massages we had on the rocks by a river on a separate morning were pretty cool too.05-10-16_Bali05605-10-16_Bali06005-10-16_Bali04405-10-16_Bali051At night, we rode 10 kilometers into town where we tasted local food (most memorably in the garage of a family’s home), and found ourselves ending each night at a local bar with live music. We were entertained enough that we never pulled out the playing cards.

After four calm days at Bambu Indah, we woke up early to catch a boat to Gili Air.05-10-16_Bali06405-10-16_Bali067To be continued …

The Hills Are Alive

Written by Robert, photographed by Julie

Alright, we’ve got some serious catching up to do. The dearth of posts is not for lack of things to say. In fact, since we last wrote we went to Cameron Highlands, honeymooned in Bali, returned to Japan, hosted my sister, her husband, and their gorgeous daughter, and returned this weekend from Chicago.

Despite all the time that has gone by, we’re going to stick to the chronological accounts of our travels.

Which brings us to Cameron Highlands, one of the Malaysia’s most popular destinations. It’s up in the hills, just a couple hours drive from KL, and offers cooler temperatures, dozens of hikes and trails of varying difficulty, and the closest thing Malays have to the English countryside.04-25-16_Cameron Highlands009We left Saturday morning, driving north for 120 kilometers before exiting to a snaking road that was half as long in distance but just as long in the time it takes to travel. The scores of switchbacks reminded us of the Road to Hana in Maui, where the 1.25 lane road is sandwiched by an 89.5-degree vertical climb on one side, and a dramatic drop on the other. Once every 10 turns or so, we were met by a waterfall or huts dotting the road, selling honey, fruit, pentai, and wicker furniture where souvenirs were bought for a lucky few.

By late morning we arrived at the Tudor-style cottage, where we stayed the night. They play up the British thing pretty big in Cameron Highlands. Roadside signs advertise afternoon tea, scones, and strawberries. And the biggest attraction is the stunning tea plantations that surround the area.

We spent the majority of the day walking through the Boh Tea Plantations. Neither of us had seen such green green. We walked through mazes of waist-high tea plants, as workers raked saws over the bushes collecting the leaves in burlap sacks along the way.

Later in the afternoon, we drove up (straight up) a 0.75-lane road to a hiking trail at Gunung Brinchang, which is the highest point in peninsular Malaysia. We walked through the mist and saw a carnivorous tropical pitcher plant just hanging out on the side of a tree. The path also apparently hosts the largest flower in the world, but we didn’t get very far as a storm was a brewin’ and we couldn’t see anything anyway, given how thick the fog was. We bookmarked it as a spot to return to.

A refreshingly cool breeze with the windows open and a fire in the fireplace awaited us back at the cottage.

The next morning, we hiked the slippery path to Robinson Falls before heading back to the big city.04-25-16_Cameron Highlands02404-25-16_Cameron Highlands028On to Bali.

Paradise Found

Photographed by Julie, written by Robert

A couple weeks ago, I surprised Julie with a trip to an island off the coast of Malaysia to celebrate three years since we first started dating and the end of Julie’s 5.5-year career at Groupon. (Turns out, I jumped the gun on both occasions, but no matter.)

The destination was a three-hour drive from KL. There’s an island off the coast called Pangkor, which looks like a hidden treasure and one rarely mentioned in the countless books about SE Asia beaches. We bypassed that one, though, and instead opted for secluded island of Pangkor Laut, where we were welcomed by a hotel whose slogan is “One Island, One Resort.”

We caught the last boat and arrived after sunset on Friday. As we walked to our free-standing bungalow over the ocean, we were told of the tree filled with flying foxes and to make sure we locked our doors so the monkeys didn’t get in (this was serious advice).

The next morning, on our walk to breakfast, we came face to face (literally inches) with our first Oriental Pied Hornbill. The rest of the day included a two-hour spa treatment, swimming by our lonesomes in an infinity pool overlooking the Straits of Malacca, an afternoon in the sun on the island’s private beach aptly-named Emerald Bay, and a sunset cruise with 15 other guests on a boat that could have fit 100.

The place was what we pictured SE Asia islands to be: turquoise water, white sand, isolated, warm, empty, animals that we had only seen in cartoons. It was spectacular. Anyone who visits us should consider going. I’d be surprised if we don’t go back.

Enough of the words, this is really an extended Instagram post. Julie, take it from here.

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