South Island, New Zealand – Red Rocket… Vroom

Taking off from Australia we touch down in Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. New Zealand is about the size of California, and roughly the opposite configuration (‘cause we’re south of the equator). The more crowded, warmer, subtropical North Island dominated by the biggest city Auckland, and the rainy, rough, rugged landscaped South Island.

View of the 12,217 ft Mt. Cook called Aeoraki by the native Maori people.

Landing late in Christchurch, we caught a nights rest before meeting the third member of our NZ adventure, Red Rocket. Rocket, is a minivan, a right-hand drive 2002 Toyota Estima with 320,000km to be precise. He is what the Kiwi’s call a campa, a sleeper van for traveling the countryside.


Inside, the back seats of Red Rocket are taken out, and replaced with a platform and a double bed. Under the platform was a 50/50 split, with a mini fridge on one side and a open space for a camping stove and kitchen utensils on the other. Accessing from the back was a storage locker, perfect for our packs and all our clothes. We spent a day in Christchurch loading up on supplies and winter clothes, which we haven’t needed so far, and the next morning we were off for what was 20 days and nights in Red Rocket.


First up we drive to Lake Tekapo, a ethereal blue lake where we spent our first night. Still getting the hang of the van, we ended up sleeping with one of the doors partially open. Temperatures dropped to almost freezing and we spent the night huddled together trying to keep warm.


Leaving the lake, we visited the worlds southern most observatory for our first of many breath taking NZ views.


The next day we drove to the base of Aeoraki or Mt. Cook, Oceania’s tallest mountain.


Rambling on, we drove to the coast to see the Moeraki boulders. Massive geode like rocks found on a beach, very strange and a nice detour after hours in the car.


Just down the coast from the boulders, was a lighthouse that provided a home to the world’s rarest penguin. The yellow-eyed penguin only exists in a few places around the South Island. Our first time seeing wild penguins, pretty sweet!


After 3 nights roughing it out of the van, we needed to resupply and shower, so we headed to Dunedin to stock up and do some work. Dunedin nicknamed the Edinborough of the south, was settled by Scottish castoffs and is now a hip college town. Just outside of town, we stumbled upon this amazing looking beach. Too bad the water is like 50 degrees.


For the record we split our 20 nights in Rocket between “campsites” which are cheap like $10 a night with little to no amenities, and “holiday parks” running about $40 a night and feature kitchens, showers and power plugs. Two of the parks even had onsite natural hot springs!


After refueling in Dunedin, we headed off for Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. New Zealand is known for its natural landscapes, so when its said Fiordland is the undisputed standout destination, that says a lot.


Driving through the park to Milford Sound, takes you through the park and a breathtaking landscape with literally thousands of waterfalls.


We spent 2 nights camping in the park, awesome to get to wake up in the wilderness. Not something we’ve gotten a ton of on this trip.

It was a little windy on the sound!

The cruise on the Milford Sound is epic. It’s one of the top things to do in New Zealand, and it’s totally deserved. Towering waterfalls plunge from misty peaks into the sound. Lush forests cling to solid rock faces, while seals and penguins hunt in the deep.


No roadie in New Zealand is complete without mentioning the sheep. Holy sheep, there are millions of them and you see them all the time. Luckily that means tons of awesome wool products. They even sell possum/wool blend goods that are made with fur from the invasive possum.


Cruising out of Fiordland National Park, we head for Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Queenstown is where they invented bungee jumping, since then they’ve grown to offer just about every adrenaline rush in the world.

Voted best burger in the world, the owner refuses to open a second location. So if you wanna try one, you gotta come to Queenstown.

We booked a hang-gliding trip but because of winds we couldn’t go on either of the days we were there. So instead Dan rented went mountain biking instead.


After a couple days in Queenstown, we packed up Rocket and cruised up the coast towards the Glacier district. Unfortunately this is as close as we could get to the Franz Joesph glacier cause the river was raging, but still cool to see.


Franz Joesph is also home to an endangered Rowi Kiwi breeding center. Kiwi’s are awesome, baby kiwi’s are ridiculously cute. The breeding center helps hatch over 100 chicks a year, raising them to about 1 year old before releasing them.wp-1451716044680.jpg

Heading north we took New Zealand’s great ocean road towards Abel Tasman. A beautiful drive, but it was one of our longest days on the road at about 6 hours. We broke up the drive by taking a detour to see Hokitika Gorge. It was a bit cloudy, but we’ve heard the water sparkles turquoise blue here like no where else in the country.


Our long drive the day before was so that we could get to Motueka for an early morning boat ride into Abel Tasman National Park.


The park is on the top of the South Island and is home to the most popular of New Zealand’s great walks, multi-day hikes through breath taking wilderness. We didn’t have time to do a multiday tramp (yes, that’s the kiwi word for hike) but Dan talked Kristin into an 11.5 mile tramp. Really cool because you hire a boat to drive you into the park drop you off on a beach, and you walk back out.


The most famous spot in Abel Tasman is Cleopatra’s Pool. Even though it was overcast, Dan couldn’t resist a dip. Behind the rocks is a sweet natural water slide. The water was freezing, but all worth it.


Cruising east from Nelson, we headed into the heart of New Zealand wine country, Marlborough. Like a laid-back version of Sonoma, staying in town, you’re only a short drive (or ride) from 20 – 30 great wineries. Plus, there’s a couple breweries snuck in there. Moa makes beers and ciders you can sometimes find around Denver.


It was really a great day riding around learning about wine and tasting Marlborough wines. Kristin just had to get a pick with the mini ponies!


Known for Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay put Marlborough on the map. We stopped by to try their wines, and crush local oysters at their raw bar. Kristin took some time to kick back in their adult swings.


Next day, we put Rocket on the Interislander and cross the Cook Strait to the North Island.

Melbourne and Sydney – Australia’s Two Great Cities


Melbourne – One of our favorites so far…

Arriving in Australia, Melbourne was a city we immediately fell in love with. The second city of Australia, Melbourne has it all. Great food, a sweet downtown, an awesome sports scene and a hip-chic apologize for nothing attitude. After Seattle, perhaps nowhere else has a stronger coffee culture than Melbourne. Awesome authentic Asian food is available on every corner, while the meaning of farm to table is reinvented throughout the many cafes that pride themselves on great ingredients.

We landed in Melbourne the day after the attacks in Paris. The French flag flies at half-mast in downtown.

On a walking tour of the city, we found this sweet bar built in the river that separates the city; it was beer-thirty so we had to have a drink.


We stayed a bit outside of the city in Northcote, just on the outskirts of the very trendy Fitzroy neighborhood. With a thriving and creative food truck scene, our Airbnb host recommended we checkout Welcome to Thornbury, a permanent bar that hosts 4 – 7 food trucks a night. A great spot for a dinner that included a kangaroo burger and Korean fried chicken.


On a recommendation from a local, we stopped by Boilermakers, a beer and whisky joint. The bar features over 600 whiskeys from around the world; they even stocked Colorado’s own Stranahans.


Our last night in town, we visited the famous Grand Victoria Market, which on Wednesdays host hundred of pop up restaurants and food vendors along side the normal artisans and craft shops. Kristin bought Dan a belated b-day present, a beautiful Kangaroo leather messenger bag.


We only spent 4 days in Melbourne, but we were sold. One of the few places we’ve been on our trip that would potentially pull us away from Denver if an opportunity comes along. Its unfortunate that the Chinese have run up in property values so much living in the city is unaffordable.

Sydney – Get in, get out


Okay, so honestly we sacrificed our Sydney trip for timing. We only spent a day and a half in Sydney. Basically we crushed a visit to the opera house, took a boat cruise to Manly beach, bought a didgeridoo and got out of town.


We know we’ll be back, so we’ll catch the rest of the city next time.




Malaysian Borneo – Welcome to the Jungle

Borneo is the 3rd largest island on earth. The island is shared by 3 countries Malaysia, the tiny nation of Brunei, and Indonesia. The island’s interior is one of the wildest places left on the planet. Sadly though Borneo forests are being destroyed faster than any other on the planet. Millions, literally millions of acres of primal jungle is intentionally burned every year to make space for illegal palm oil plantations. It’s sickening to fly over hundreds of miles of land to only see perfect rows of palm trees. Still, there is hope, our trip to Borneo proved there is still lots of nature to experience.

Beyond the clouds a lost world exists, but for how much longer? It really made us question the true cost of cheap palm oil.

First up, a diver’s pilgrimage to Mabul and Sipadan Islands. Once you’re on Borneo, it takes 2 days to get Mabul, and another hour to get to Sipadan, but it is worth it. Mabul island is an hour by boat from the closest port on Borneo, Semporna. Semporna is a divey town and is only there because of its close proximity to Sipadan. The one redeeming factor about the town is the cheap live seafood restaurants. We even got the chance to eat Stonefish which is super poisonous when its alive but you are able to eat it after its cooked and it is delicious.


Mabul is paradise, ringed by picture perfect beaches and surrounded by warm tropical coral seas, you literally cannot ask for more. If you are a diver and have a chance, do not miss diving a couple days here. Overall Mabul diving was not as good as Komodo in Indonesia, but it was still great. But staying on the island was much more comfortable than living on a dive boat in Komodo. The diving on our day in Sipadan however, was exceptional.



Sipadan Island is unlike any other in Malaysia. Protected for over 25 years as a nature preserve, this tiny volcanic island sits in thousands of feet of water and attracts rare and weird creatures from all over the ocean.

sipidan island

In between dives, you get to spend an hour relaxing on the beach, paradise!
In between dives, you get to spend an hour relaxing on the beach, paradise!

The government only allows 120 divers a day access to Sipadan and the protection has really payed off, giant walls of perfect corals, massive schools of jacks and batfish hang in the shallows and killers lurk below.

sipadan jacks

On one dive alone we saw probably 20 different grey and white tip sharks, a bunch of barracuda and an endangered scalloped hammerhead!

sipidan shark

Don’t just take our word for it, CNN Travel voted Sipadan’s Barracuda Point the  best dive site in the world last year.


Leaving Mabul, we headed back to the mainland and trekked north to spend a couple nights in a jungle bungalow.

In a small travel SNAFU, we hitchhiked the rest of the way to Sepliok in the back of a palm oil plantation truck. These guys were loving it!

Borneo’s jungles feature thousands of exotic creatures, but by far the most famous are the only great apes outside of Africa. Orang Utans (yes it is two words, malay for wild man of the forest) number about 40,000 on Borneo, and this is the only place other than Sumatra in the world they live.


We visited the Orang Utan sanctuary to learn more about these special creatures. Orangs spend their first 8 – 9 years with their mothers, and orphaned orangs younger than this will die if left on their own. The sanctuary takes in Orangs from across Borneo, found by loggers and villagers. They raise them in the semi-wild park, train them in Orang life skills and try to release them. With a 75% success rate, they’ve been able to save and rehabilitate over 800 Orangs!


Visiting on Dan’s mom’s birthday, we decided to adopt an Orang in her honor, here is a video of our new buddy, Gelison!

On recommendation from a fellow traveler, one night we booked a night trek through the rainforest. We started at a visitors center on the edge of the park but beyond the gates was wild jungle.


For two hours we trekked through paths looking for giant red flying squirrels (which we saw, but not flying), spectacular sleeping birds, huge jungle bugs and other rare nocturnal creatures. We were so lucky, we were even able to spot an elusive Slow Loris.

Trekking through the forest during the day before our night trek adventure

Slow Loris’s are really exceptional monkeys, they have huge eyes, and yes they move very slowly. Why? They are protected from predators because they cover their bodies in poisonous sap that makes them inedible, what a sweet adaptation!

A jungle view from our rainforest chateau
A jungle view from our rainforest chateau

By far the biggest excitement of our entire trip happened outside of the bathroom at the visitor center. As we gathered for our trek “WHAP!” a giant black snake fell from the roof and landed right next to one of the other trekkers. Our ranger immediately started yelling “GET AWAY!!!” as he ran backwards. After the snake slithered off into the nearest jungle without incident, the guide explained that we had just encountered a rare Sumatran spitting black cobra. This thing is one of the most deadly snakes in the world, and it can spit venom up to 30 feet. It’s also a snake for which there is no anti-venom so if you are bit you are on your own to fight off death. Wha-wha-we-wha!

A Sumatran spitting cobra behind glass in the Singapore zoo

Top 5 Things to Do in Malaysia

  1. Experience paradise, stay on Mabul and dive Sipidan
  2. Take a trek through the Borneo jungle at night
  3. Eat your way through the back streets of Penang and find the Boatman
  4. Meet Gelison and the other Orang Utans in Sepilok
  5. Go see the Blue Mansion in Penang and learn about the colonial past

Penang, Malaysia – Street food and street art

The island of Penang is just off the west coast of Malaysia, once a thriving trading port of the British Empire, it has reinvented itself as a technology hub and foodie paradise. As with Singapore and Hong Kong, the British influence runs deep, and you can find everything from high tea, to dim sum and spicy chicken tandoori. Georgetown, the largest city on Penang was declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its uniquely preserved shophouses and streets.


What is really special about the city though it how it has embraced art. Throughout the city, there are sweet rod iron installations and professional street art murals. A day in Penang, is one spent hunting down displays and snacking on wonderful food from all over Asia. The Boatman above is over 30 feet tall.

The iron work, tells stories of the past, or about history of a particular district or street.


On “love lane” mistresses were commonly kept, it’s now a backpacker’s haven.


The famous designer Jimmy Choo got his start in Penang.


The painted murals, often incorporate actual objects. In this display you can sit on the swing, while everything else you see is painted on the wall.


This is a real motorbike, with a wall painting behind it.


Some, are just sweet graffiti, like Bruce Lee kicking the sh*t out of this cat.


Nights in Penang are times to venture out to hawker markets. A hawker is a group of carts all specializing in one dish or another. Common items are char kway toew (stir-fried noodles), laksa (spicy coconut fish soup) and fresh stingray wing barbequed over charcoal. It’s like a food truck rally but way better and way cheaper. Most items are between $1 – $2.50


Another fun thing we did in Penang was visit the Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion) which was built by the “Rockefeller of Asia” and restored about 20 years ago. This is interesting to see because it is built in traditional Chinese Feng Shui and during the tour you get to learn about how to Feng Shui your own home!

Penang is a place that doesn’t deserve a ton of time, but is a great and unique place to visit as part of a trip to Southeast Asia. We spent two and a half days here and that was about perfect, just enough time to see everything, get fat and then get out of town. Next up a flight to untamed island of Borneo.

Chiang Mai & Pai – Northern Thailand

Wat Chedi Luang Temple at Sunset

After our terrifying escape out of Myanmar, a 30 hour commute, overnight bus ride, and 2 flights, to go about 400 miles, circumventing the closed border, we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is very different than Bangkok or the bustling beaches of southern Thailand. Still popular, Chiang Mai is different, instead catering more to the cultural crowd rather than the raucous party crowd.

Based on a number of recommendations we had gotten from other travelers, after arriving in Chiang Mai, we immediately hopped on a bus and headed 3 hours north to Pai. Pai is famous for the harrowing 762 curve road connecting it to Chiang Mai, but the ride is worth it, as you arrive in a beautiful valley, filled with waterfalls, natural hot springs and plenty of chilled out backpackers.


Waterfall above Pai.
Streets of Pai.

Pai is a small town that’s pretty sleepy during the day, but it comes alive at night. The two main streets close to cars, and are instead filled with food carts and local artisans. The night market was the highlight of our trip to Pai.

So sketchy Durian. A one time extravaganza.

One night while walking in the night market, we finally worked up the courage to try the infamous king of fruit, Durian. It is expensive, $4-$5 for a small piece, it smells like a baby’s diaper, it has the consistency of warm brie and tastes like sour caramelized onions, it’s not for everyone. It’s not for us, but it is worth trying.

After a few days in Pai, we headed back to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is regarded as the culinary capital of Thailand, part of the reason we headed here. While there are plenty of restaurants in Chiang Mai, true gourmands, head to the street carts that line the old squares at night. You can find everything from Thai favorites like Pad Thai and Pad See Ewe to more exotic dishes like fish ball soup and I think our favorite and most often ordered dishes were som tam; green papaya salad, larb; ground pork salad, and Kristin’s jam mango sticky rice.

One of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai is visiting an elephant camp. Elephants have been domesticated and used as working animals here for over 1,000 years.


Many of the surrounding hills contain camps where tourists can go and spend a day with elephants, we choose one that got us up close for a feeding, a mud bath session and a visit to the river for a cool afternoon swim. This was one of the most memorable things we’ve done our entire trip.

Mama Elephant Mud Bath
Baby Elephant Mud Bath
Elephant Sanctuary Group Photo

After spending the morning with elephants, Kristin treated herself to a trip to the spa in the afternoon. While massages are very common, we’ve gotten at least 10, and cheap usually $4 – $10 and hour, this was a true spa experience. We would definitely recommend paying a few extra bucks and treating yourself to a luxury spa in Chiang Mai. Kristin’s package got her a Thai herbal steam treatment, a cereal scrub, a Moroccan mud wrap, an hour oil massage and a 45 min facial. This 4 hour, 5 star spa experience cost about $150.

Rotisserie Chicken SP Chicken

We finished our trip with a visit to a famous rotisserie chicken vendor, who serves what some consider to be the best rotisserie chicken in Thailand. Ours was over cooked, couldn’t compete with the best we’ve ever had which was in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Burma (Myanmar) – A Step Back in Time

The country now called Myanmar, was known for most of its history as Burma. A trip to Burma is a trip back in time, and I am not using hyperbole, the country has only recently opened to the west, Coca-Cola has only been sold here since 2013. Although rich with natural resources, oil, gems and Teak forests, Burma is the 23rd poorest country in the world, and only ahead of Afghanistan and Nepal in Asia by GDP per person. North Korea is ahead of them.

Old meets new, checkout this guy's phone situation.
Old meets new, checkout this guy’s phone situation.

Our 6 day trip to Burma began in the largest city Yangon. Newly opening up to foreign investment, Yangon was one big construction site. Traffic in the city is miserable, was almost missed our night bus after a 5 mile drive took us 2 hours. Besides the construction and the traffic, Yangon, does have one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. Shwedagon Pagoda is massive at 325 ft. tall and covered in gold. The top crown is topped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and gems, including a 75 carat diamond!


After a day in Yangon, we hoped on a night bus to Bagan. Bagan is an ancient city, whose heyday was about 800 years. Bagan, is an amazing place to visit, the city and the surrounding countryside have over 3,000 of these pagodas.


Being one of the biggest tourist draws in Burma, Bagan was surprisingly low key. Tourism still hasn’t taken off in Burma, it was a nice change of pace from the frenzied pace of many of our recent trips.

Painting on the inside of one of the biggest temples.

We really enjoyed Bagan, to see the sights, you can either rent a horse drawn cart for the day $5.50 including driver or an electric scooter for $4. We opted for the scooter and spent our days driving the countryside being blown away by the sheer volume of temples here.


Leaving Bagan, we hopped on a plane, our destination was a mountain village of Kalaw. Being a closed country, tourists are only allowed to visit around 20% of Burma. Kalaw is one of the few place outside of cities, we could go. We headed there to relax, enjoy the cool mountain air and hike.

The main road in Kalaw. This huge tree was in full bloom.

It rained for most of our time in Kalaw. So one day, we opted to rent a car and driver and drive to Inle Lake. A great decision, Inle is massive and home to thousands of people who live exclusively on the water. Homes, schools and even massive garden beds are all built over the lake.

Floating garden beds grow, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes and peppers.

Hiring a boat and driver, they take you around the lake, visiting different villages that all specialize in crafts from silversmithing, to cigar rolling, lacquer wear and yes even a weaving village with long-necked women!


It rained, this day as well, making picture taking difficult, but still you could feel why Inle is considered a sacred place by the local people.


Without a doubt, one of the single best experiences we’ve had our whole trip happened unexpectedly one night in Kalaw. Lonely Planet, had recommended visiting HI, the only bar in town for a rum punch. What a treat. The bar didn’t have a sound system, instead patrons took turns on the guitar, playing Burmese songs which would inevitably end with everyone in the bar singing along. People in the bar were so nice, with everyone crowding down to our end, asking us questions through the 2 guys who were translating the conversation. It’s rare to get to have a “real” cultural exchange, and are very lucky we had one of those moments this night.

Yep, this is the whole bar.

Ask us later about the hike we took our last day in Kalaw. This was one of the few pictures we took before finding ourselves stuck hiking through a mud bog. It was not one of the finer moments of our trip so far.

A local farmer walked us thourgh his carrot beds walking us around a mud bog. RIght before we realized what we were in for.
A local farmer walked us thourgh his carrot beds walking us around a mud bog. RIght before we realized what we were in for.

That night, with wet and muddy clothes in hand, we hopped on another night bus for a frightening 10 hour drive through the mountains back to Yangon. I am not kidding, halfway through this crazy taxi bus ride, Kristin and I were so scared, we said goodbye to each other in case we died.

Only in Burma…

Like name, like many things in this country, was changed by an authoritarian military regime that has ruled for almost 50 years. The military, always wanting to maintain its iron clad grip on society, has made some wonky decisions. Here is a list of crazy, only in Burma oddities:

  • They have their own time zone, which runs on a half hour, they are an hour and a half behind Singapore.
  • Trying to break with their British ruled past, one day 30 years ago, they switched which side of the road they drive on, from the left (British) to the right (American). Almost none of the cars have been replaced since the switch, so most cars are British style drive on the right. Meaning a driver has to pull all the way into oncoming traffic before he can see if a car is coming.
  • The largest city Rangoon, was changed to Yangon. Everyone he talked too still calls it Rangoon. In 2006, the capital was moved from Rangoon to Naypyidaw (read more about it) which was basically a dirt field before being named the capital.
  • Driving past one site, Kristin noticed all of the construction workers in plain view wore western style outfits, hard hats and boots. Behind a covered fence, we could clearly see laborers in shorts and flip-flops. As with most authoritarian countries we’ve visited, appearances are more important than realities in Burma.
  • The ATM only dispenses 5,000 Kyat ($4 US) notes. With limited ATM’s and no credit cards, you should see the stack of bills you get when you pull out the max about $300 US.
  • Most food in Burma is pre-cooked and since refrigeration is limited, it sits out until it’s ordered. This goes against our biggest food no-no while traveling. There really isn’t any other options here, making every meal a potential time-bomb for intestinal issues.

Top 5 in Burma

  1. Go there now! Like Cuba, seeing this place soon let’s you see it how it was…
  2. Visit Bagan, and scooter through the over 3,000 pagodas
  3. Have a Rum Punch at HI bar in Kalaw
  4. Take a long tail boat around Inle Lake
  5. Skip the cold curries, and visit Everest, a Nepalese restaurant in Kalaw.

Lubuan Bajo, Indonesia – The Mythical Islands of Komodo

Leaving Bali behind, we hopped on a propeller plane to the outpost of Lubuan Bajo. The fast growing grubby port town that serves as the jumping off point for Komodo National Park. We spent one night in LBJ before heading to the Wicked Diving headquarters to meet the boat that would serve as the “floating hostel,” named CB.

View of one of the islands in the park as we came up from our 3rd dive on day one.

Komodo National Park is a big marine park consisting of 3 main islands and hundreds of smaller ones. The 3 main islands are the only place in the world to see the famed Komodo Dragons. Komodo Park is as famous for its scuba, as it is for the dragons. The archipelago of Indonesia serves as a barrier between 2 of the world’s largest oceans, the Pacific and Indian. Komodo Park sits right in the middle of one of the most open parts of the island chain, meaning everyday trillions of gallons of sea water pour back and forth through the channels, carrying with it nutrients and creatures great and small.

Manta Video Screenshot

CB the floating hostel was pretty cool. The many hours of research, and we do a ton with all the traveling, had paid off again. Day trips to Komodo Park only allow divers to reach the outer most dive sites, and liveaboard boats (where you stay on the boat) are usually a minimum of 5 days and way too much for our budget. Luckily Wicked Diving launched CB, the floating hostel, where a day trip boats take guests into the park to stay on the boat and visit the best dive sites from there.


It’s impossible to describe the awe inspiring nature of the marine environment of Komodo Park. Hundreds of species of coral, glowing in in every color and shape imaginable.


Thousands of fish, in every pattern possible fight for life darting in, out and around the corals.


The only way to describe it is, unreal. If you are a diver, start planning your trip to Komodo. We only spent 1 night on CB, but that was enough time to crush 6 of the best dive sites in the world.


After 2 exhausting days diving, we headed back to LBJ to prepare for our last day in Indonesia and a trip to Rinca, one of the islands that is home to the famed Komodo Dragons. All of the islands where the dragons live are very strange and unique to all the others we saw in Indonesia. Only after visiting RInca did we understand why the giant lizards live only here. The islands are big, big enough to support large animals like Water Buffalo and Deer, but they are very dry and contain almost no trees, the landscape looks like African Savannah.


With no other large predators and large game animals, the Dragons grew in size over thousands of years to be able to match their large prey. The dragons don’t kill their prey, they bite them and wait for two weeks, for the over 60 types of bacteria in their saliva to kill the animal. Then they feast.

It looks fake, but this is a 6 foot wild Komodo Dragon. They are so lazy that our guide learned how to get close and frame them for photos.
It looks fake, but this is a 6 foot wild Komodo Dragon. They are so lazy that our guide learned how to get close and frame them for photos.

After leaving Rinca, our tour took us to a couple beaches for snorkeling. Having been wet for the last 2 days straight, we spent most the time on the boat, but did get off to visit this beautiful horn beach. The quickly rising tide swallowed this beach in 5 minutes.


Kyoto: Monkeys, Handmade Knives and Fugu (Blowfish)

After our night of rest and relaxation in the Ryokan in the mountains, we hoped on a train for the 45 min ride into Kyoto. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan, and is located in the middle of the largest island Honshu. Kyoto is very old, and still carries many of the traditions of Japan. With thousands of temples dotting the city and hills around Kyoto, there is no shortage of sites. We were also lucky enough to see a Maiko (geisha in training) leaving work one night scurrying to a cab on her way home, a very rare view into old school Japan. Kyoto is also famous for having some of the best food in Japan, and a troop of the famous Snow Monkeys.

Snow monkey just chilling, while huge Koi fish swim by.

A visit to Kyoto is not complete without seeing Kinkaku-ji or the “gold temple” which is covered in 22k gold leaf just like the capital in Denver. We are not photographers, it’s just not hard to capture this stunning temple. This is one of our favorite pics of the whole trip so far.


The next day we hopped on the bus to Arashiyama to see the snow monkeys and visit the bamboo forest. A fun day trip, and it was great to hangout with the monkeys, but the bamboo forest was kind of cheesy.


Although these monkeys are technically wild, they spend a lot of there day hanging out near this ranger station where people are allowed to feed them. Being monkeys they got pretty good at begging, storing the food in their cheeks to eat for later. The bamboo forest was filled with Chinese tourists making it not the peaceful serene setting we were hoping for, especially in the pouring rain, but we tried to make the most of it.


We love to cook. Dan loves overly expensive things. Enter handmade Japanese knives. One of the things Dan wanted to get on our trip from the beginning was a handmade knife from Japan. Japanese knives are famous among chefs worldwide for their quality. Our knives came from Shigeharu, a small family run shop that is much less famous than a few of the major knife makers in Kyoto. The Shigeharu family knows knives. They have been making knives in Kyoto since the 13th century! Here the knife maker hand chisels his name into the blade of Dan’s new sashimi knife. Kristin constantly reminds Dan of how practical owning a sashimi knife is, Dan doesn’t care.


Our favorite historical attraction in Kyoto was our visit to Nijo Castle. A short walk from our Airbnb, Nijo Castle has served many purposes over the years, including at one point being the emperors official residence. What we loved about the castle was that the visit made us feel like we were living in feudal Japan. Beautiful inside, the castle features rice paper walls, hand painted tiger murals and tatami mat floors. When the emperor lived here, samurai would’ve patrolled the grounds, and it’s easy to imagine that scene today.


In Dan’s mind, no trip to Japan would’ve been considered complete without eating the world’s most dangerous meal. Fugu or blowfish, is a Japanese delicacy that can kill. It contains neurotoxins that give you a nice numbing sensation when you eat it, but be careful, getting a bit of organs, especially the liver can lead to paralysis and death. Chef’s have to train for years to become Fugu certified, and all of the waste from the fish is sealed in hazmat boxes.

Kristin is clearly very excited to try the Fugu!

Fushimi Inari Taisha, or the orange shrine is a Broncos fan paradise. 20 min outside Kyoto, thousands of Broncos orange gates dot a mountain side, and it’s easy to spend an afternoon wondering up and down the hills marveling in the size of the gates. All donated by families, the gates are about 10 feet high and make for some stunning pictures.


Top 5 for Kyoto

  1. Snap a pic of the Kinkaku-ji shrine
  2. Buy a one of a kind handmade knife
  3. Use your knife to slice up some Fugu, if you dare…
  4. Head to the Gion district and try and spot a geisha or maiko
  5. Throw on your Manning jersey and blend in at the Orange Shrine

Hiroshima, Japan: A-bombs and Onsens

After leaving Tokyo, we took the bullet train to Hiroshima. Bullet trains in Japan rock. Traveling about 200 mph, a trip across the country takes you only 5 hours including stops. We passed by the foot of Mt Fuji, but couldn’t see it through the clouds.

Right outside the train station, Dan finally found a beer vending machine!
Outside the train station, Dan finally found a beer/sake vending machine!

Hiroshima is a very interesting city. One that features a past of remarkable devastation (over 90% of buildings destroyed, 200,000 killed, 75,000 instantly and 125,000 from radiation sickness/cancer) but striking young and hip vibe, that is different from the rest of Japan.

Millions of paper cranes are sent to Hiroshima every year.
Millions of paper cranes are sent to Hiroshima every year.

The only building that survived, stood almost directly under the spot where the bomb exploded (1,700 feet up in the air) the blast traveled out, not down, leaving this building mostly standing.

Genbaku (A-bomb) dome
Genbaku (A-bomb) dome

In some ways I think the bombing allowed the city to carve a unique path as the city recovered. Japan is a country very tied to tradition and history. Many business and families trace their roots back hundreds, even thousands of years. In Hiroshima, nothing is older than 70 years. Buildings, businesses, everything is new and it has allowed the city to regrow and shape itself free of tradition. Instead of food that has been created the same way for 200 years, chefs are allowed to experiment, precisely because they don’t have to adhere to tradition. We only spent 2 days in Hiroshima, but could’ve spent more, they have an excellent food scene, and a really cool bar/shopping district that comes alive on weekends.


One of the best meals we had our entire trip was sushi in Hiroshima. A traditional sushi joint, Sushi Tei Kamiyacho, has no servers and all seats are at a bar where the chef handles the service. We gorged ourselves on everything from Toro (blue fin tuna belly) to Amaebi (fresh raw shrimp) and even the nightly special Ise-ebi (japanese spiny lobster) which a little to Kristin’s horror was killed and sliced within seconds right in front of us!

View of the 60 ft Itsukushima shrine at low tide. During high tide the orange shrine is submerged in water.

For our second day in Hiroshima, we traveled to Miyajima or ‘shrine island’ just off the coast. For over 1,000 years, this small island has been a sacred place in Japan and features the Itsukushima water shrine, a UNESCO world heritage site.


The island also features a big herd of deer, that have learned to become tame to humans. They troll the streets of the town, searching for handouts from tourists.

Here’s Dan introducing a deer, to his locally made craft beer featuring these same deer.

After leaving Hiroshima, we traveled on to our next destination, a small mountain ryokan with onsen outside the city of Kyoto. Ryokans, especially those with onsens (natural baths) are a big part of Japanese culture and tradition. On the surface, they are B&B’s with baths, beneath the surface they are part of the fabric that connects the busy city dwelling Japanese to nature and to the mountains which cover most of Japan. Staying at a ryokan is a must when visiting Japan. They come in many shapes and sizes, but are all focused on rest and relaxation. Immediately upon arrival, you are changed into robes that you wear for the entire time. Except when you go into the onsen (hot spring) naked.


A big part of the ryokan experience is opting for the kaseki dinner. Kaseki dinners are feasts featuring many courses intricate presentations focusing on highlighting the ingredients. Almost everything in our dinner was locally sourced.


When Dan asked where the beef was from “Kobe?” our waitress replied disgusted, “No, it’s local!” Kobe is only about 50 miles away. Their beef is incredible, you’ve never seen marbling and fat like this in a steak. We opted for the sukiyaki meal, where all of this went into a fondue style hot-pot.


What fancy meal in Japan doesn’t feature the best sashimi you’ve ever had? None. These people are psycho about fish, they put it in everything and they eat it all the time. We’ve been around the world, and some of the weirdest tastes you’ll get are in Japan.


After dinner, they make up your room for bedtime. Yep, those are fancy futons laid out on bamboo “tatami” mats. Kristin, Jack and Dan get to cuddle!


Top 5 for Hiroshima

  1. Stay in an ryokan with an outdoor onsen
  2. Visit the Genbaku dome and the A-bomb museum
  3. Have a beer with a deer in Miyajima
  4. Spend the money and experience a kaseki dinner
  5. Eat okonomiyaki off a hot griddle

Sarah and Scott join us for Dubrovnik, Montenegro and Bosnia

This blog chapter features two new characters. Kristin’s good friend Sarah and her husband Scott. Sarah and Scott (aka S-cubed) have been living in Birmingham, England for the last year and a half on a 2-year work transfer assignment. We were luckily they were able to get time off and join us for a 5-day trip through Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia.


After Mali Ston, we bused to Dubrovnik, Croatia where we spent a night before S-cubed arrived. Dubrovnik is a gorgeous walled city in the far south of Croatia. You have seen it many times, as Dubrovnik is the shooting location for King’s Landing in the show Game of Thrones. We even found ourselves walking up a big limestone staircase before reaching the top; we realized this was the staircase Cersei disgracefully climbed naked in the final episode of last season. Very fun. Although we did not take one of the popular Game of Thrones walking tours where they show you many of the shooting locations within the city.

The battle of blackwater, began right here.

On our second morning in Dubrovnik, S-cubed arrived and our tour began. That afternoon, we rented kayaks and paddled around the old city walls and to a secluded beach. That night we all went into town for a big meal of grilled fish and squid.

The view from the AirBnb we rented.

The next morning we arose early to go rent a car and begin driving to Kotor, Montenegro. Montenegro is a small country, just a couple hours drive from Dubrovnik. We were only here for a day, and night. Kotor is famous for its walled fortress and connected mountain top castle.

After climbing over 1300 stairs, to the top of Kotor castle, we felt like we were seeing double.

After a great day hiking the Kotor fortress and an awesome rooftop dinner at Hippocampus. We set off in the morning for a beautiful drive around the bay of Kotor, headed to the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Our first stop in Bosnia was Mostar. Capital of the southern half of the country, the Herzegovina half , Mostar is a thriving city, with a storied, and tragic history. Mostar is most famous for its bridge. The largest stone bridge in the world. It was built by the Ottomans in the 1557, and spans a river, up to 60 feet up. Locals and tourists will jump off this bridge, and Red Bull recently hosted a professional cliff diving event here.


The tragic, side of history was that the bridge was almost completely destroyed during the Bosnian war, I wrote a short history below. It was rebuilt only a few years ago, but they rebuilt it only using methods available during the original construction. Meaning every stone, and lead anchor was cut, cast and pinned by hand. On one side of the bridge was a museum of war time photos, its chilling to see that most of the city was completely leveled by shelling.

Notice the color difference between the newer (whiter) stone of the bridge and the older (browner) stone of the supporting walls.

wpid-wp-1441722348267.jpgUnlike most history we’ve seen so far, this was a war we remembered, a war that ended not even 20 years ago. Everyone person you meet in Bosnia lived through this experience. We couldn’t imagine continuing to live in a place after living through a war like this one. On our final day, we headed to Sarajevo, where S-cubed would leave us for our flight to Turkey. We enjoyed a tour of the old city, seeing the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, starting WWI. We then had lunch at the awesome Sarajevo Brewery, who thanks to an underground spring, kept cranking out brews even while the city was under enemy fire for almost 4 years.

The history, the Bosnian War that we think of was really a civil war in the former country of Yugoslavia. The end result was that Yugoslavia broke apart into 6 (7 if you include Kosovo) separate countries. There were 3 main ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, the Serbs in the East, the Croats in the West and Bosnaks caught in the middle. In 1991, the Croats seceded reasonably peacefully into 2 countries, Croatia and Slovenia. In 1992 the Muslim Bosnaks prepared to secede and create Bosnia, taking a substantial number of ethnically Serbian people who lived in Bosnia with them. The Serbs fought back, launching a brutal military campaign against them. It’s a very complicated story with fault on all 3 sides, but basically the country of Bosnia was ravaged and torn apart. As with any civil war, neighbors fought neighbors and horrific things happened. America ended the war soon after we stepped in, by bombing Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbian President Slobodan Miloševićk knew we’d level the city, and quickly ended the serb campaign. Country boarders were drawn. When the dust settled, thousands of Bosnaks were ethnically cleansed, Sarajevo was under siege for almost 4 years, Mostar was completed leveled and war crimes tribunals are still in progress. Not much was settled. Ethnic divisions are still very strong, but all the countries are stable, and economies are growing and people’s lives across the region are improving.