Vientiane, Laos – BeerLao and Boat Festivals

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is pretty small compared to the other capital cities of Southeast Asia making it a great place to explore, there is plenty to see and you get to know the Laotian culture. We were lucky enough to be in the city during one of Vientiane’s biggest festivals Bun Nam. The streets were packed with people and lined with tents selling all kinds of goods, making food, and running carnival games. During the evening the stages were opened and concerts got going and a muay thai fight started. It was crazy loud because almost every tent had a few speakers either blasting music or egging people to come buy from their stall. It was madness. Along with the crazy party the main draw is the boat race that occurs the next day. The night before Loatians make or purchase little boats made of bamboo leaves, flowers, and candles and take them down to the Mekong river where they say prayers and send the boats into the water. The boats are supposed to carry any bad out into the water and away from you. So of course we had to buy one and send it out into the water (we wished that any bad travel juju would be sent out into the Mekong).

Boat headed to the Mekong.
LIght up boats and fireworks on the Mekong.
Bamboo boats. These are the super fancy ones. Made of bamboo leaves, flowers, and candles to float in the river.
Muay thai fight.
Dan winning at Laos carnival games.

Since Vientiane is pretty small it’s a great place to explore on foot or bicycle. We rented bikes from our hostel and rode around the city seeing the main sites. Vientiane has a replica of the Arc de Triomphe and a large street that leads up to the building that people have referred to as the Champs D’Elysees of the east. (Fun Fact: They built the arc with concrete given to them by the US that was supposed to go towards building an airport.) You can climb to the top and get a good few of the city.

Biking up the asian Champs D’Elysees.
Asian Arc de Triomphe.
Laos monks overlooking the asian Arc de Triomphe.

Vientiane also has a lot of Buddhist temples worth visiting that are within the city. They are beautifully decorated with colorful paintings and statues.



An interesting attraction outside of the city is a Buddha park where someone decided to take a plot of land and put up a bunch of Buddhist or Hindu statues. We took the public bus here so it was pretty cheap to see the park and entrance reasonable so it was worth seeing since we had some time but definitely not on the must see list of Vientiane.




One of the highlights in the city is the COPE visitor center. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and its mission is to provide prosthetics to people who can’t afford it. They started COPE for people who had lost limbs due to cluster bombs but have expanded to helping people with other disabilities. During the Vietnam war the US used cluster bombs to bomb Laos because the Northern Vietnamese were using Laos territory for supply routes and the Laos government was allowing this to occur. The visitor center is well done and isn’t too biased against the US which is refreshing.

On the last day we booked a tour to go trekking in the Phou Khao Khouay National Park. This forest land is about 2 hours outside of the city and is home to many species of animals including elephants and sun bears (which we did not see on the trek (sad face)). Our tour started with a boat ride in a long boat which is super sketch since the boat is so skinny and once all 5 of were in the boat it is only like 1 inch above the water line. Fortunately we did not fall in or get wet. The second part of the tour consisted of trekking through the Laos jungle and through tons of bamboo. Our guide (who was hiking in flip flops) set a pretty vigorous pace so by the time we got to the end of the trek we were all drenched and sweating profusely. The trek ended at two waterfalls and at the second waterfall we were able to swim in the cold water which was amazing after our run/trek through the jungle.



Vientiane also had some pretty great food. There is a good mix of western food (when you need a break from Asian street food), street food, other Asian foods like Japanese and Vietnamese and Laotian cuisine. One of our favorite Lao meals we had was at Lao kitchen where we had Laab and this crazy stew that had buffalo skin and pepper bark. Even with the crazy ingredients the stew was pretty tasty. All Laotian food is served with super sticky rice that they serve in a wicker basket. You take the sticky rice and dip it in your food and eat with your hands.  As for drinks the Laotians basically only drink two things BeerLao (90% of the country prefers BeerLao as drink of choice) or rice whiskey. We ended up trying some rice whiskey and it is straight fire water, definitely have a chaser if you ever end up ordering it!

Here is our ride to the airport.

Top 5 Things to do in Vientiane:

  1. Rent a bike and tour around the city
  2. Eat traditional Lao food at Lao Kitchen
  3. Drink a BeerLao while watching the sunset over the Mekong
  4. Take a tour outside the city to see the countryside
  5. Visit the COPE visitor center

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.


Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – Balinese Culture and Tibetan Bowls

After getting our chill on in Gili Air we headed to Ubud, Bali to experience the Balinese culture. Ubud is the “love” section of the book Eat, Pray, Love so there are a lot of restaurants etcetera that use that to their advantage but most of Ubud was awesome to visit even though it was pretty touristy. The city somehow was able to still feel authentic and real even with the tourists.

Balinese door with offerings out front. Everyday the Balinese make these bamboo boxes full of a little fruit, rice, and flowers as offerings to the spirits.

You can’t go to Ubud without going to yoga or meditation classes. We ended up buying a 3 pass to the Yoga Barn and did two Vinyasa classes that really kicked our butts and we were sore for like 3 days. We also were able to take a Tibetan Bowl Meditation class. This was probably one of the coolest things we did. During the Tibetan Bowl Meditation you lie on your back in a circle of people with your head towards the center of the circle and in the center there are the Tibetan bowls. The meditation is an hour long and you sit there while the leader gongs the bowls in a pattern. After the meditation is over you feel like you were sleeping but are unsure if you were actually sleeping (maybe that is what happens while you are meditating??) Basically it was a crazy experience and both Dan and I felt totally weird afterwards and unsure of what just happened. We also definitely want to do it again.

Getting our yoga on at the Yoga Barn. You definitely can see the best of the best Yogis at a yoga class in Bali.

We ended up taking a bike cycling tour so we could see the outside of Ubud and the rice paddies and smaller villages that surround the city. The tour started at the Mount Batur volcano which is still active today. From the volcano we went to a store where we were able to taste Luwak coffee and see the Luwak. A Luwak is a possum like animal (technically in the feline family) that eats the best Arabica coffee beans. The beans are then digested/fermented in the digestive tract and pooped out. The locals call it a catpoochinno (hee hee!). Those pooped out beans are then cleaned, roasted, and sold for exorbitant prices, $8 for a cup of coffee and $30 for 50 grams. Don’t get me wrong the coffee is good but it definitely not worth the price.  After the coffee tasting we got on our bikes and started the 2 hour downhill ride where we got to visit a Balinese home and see the beautiful rice paddies.

View of Mount Batur. The lake around Mount Batur is believed to be a holy place by the Balinese.
Rice Terraces.

The tour was great because it was a downhill bike ride which is totally Kristin’s speed but also was really informative. We learned a lot about the Balinese culture and family. The Balinese are Hindu but have a unique form of Hindu that is blended with their traditional Bali religion. They believe that all things have spirits so every day they make offerings to temples, scooters, entrances to homes, businesses, etc. These offerings are believed to fend off bad spirits. The Balinese also believe in reincarnation and don’t celebrate their birthdays but celebrate their lives every 6 months. It was really cool to see a totally different culture and religion and learn about how they do things so differently.

Balinese mini temples with intricate carvings.

One of the other forms of Balinese culture is Balinese Dance. We were able to see a show one night that included multiple forms of dance and music that was super interesting. I loved the brightly colored costumes and gold headpieces.


Legong Dance.
Legong Dance.


Barong Dance. The Barong is the magical protector of Balinese villages. As “lord of the forest” with fantastic fanged mask and long mane, he is the opponent of Rangda the witch, who rules over the spirits of darkness, in the never ending fight between good and evil.

Another tourist attraction in Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest which is basically a forest where 5 troupes of Macaque monkeys live and there are a few temples to visit. You get to feed the monkey’s bananas and they will climb up onto you in order to get them. It was pretty fun to just sit there and watch them monkeying around (see what I did there??).

Monkey eating banana.


Dan swinging from banyan tree vines.

The food in Ubud was really good with a focus on local ingredients including tons of vegetarian options, fresh juices, and great coffee. There is even a pretty decent sushi restaurant. One of the restaurant highlights was a great restaurant called Locavore where we went for lunch on our last day in Ubud. This place was unreal. They only have two menus, Herbivore and Omnivore, and you get to choose either 5 courses or 7 courses. We chose one of each of the menus and went for the 7 courses because why not?? The food was fresh, locally sourced, and really creative. It also ended up being like 15 courses because there were 4 amuse bouches and 4 desserts (on top of the two desserts included in the courses). The only caveat is that it was a lot more expensive than the other restaurants ($50/person) but I think it was totally worth it.

Cucumber deliciousness at Locavore.
Omnivore Menu. Overall Omnivore beat out the herbivore menu.

We were lucky to be in Ubud after a full moon because that is when most of the Balinese celebrations occur. We got to see the temples dressed up for the celebration and the locals bringing offerings to and from the temples. The local women carry the offerings, basically a giant cake stand stacked with fruit, on their heads. They are so good at this that we saw more than one local women balancing an offering on her head while texting with both hands.

Village temple dressed up for ceremony.

Ubud was a great place to experience the Balinese culture. The people here were so friendly and welcoming definitely a place we would recommend people to visit!

Top 5 Things to Do in Ubud:

  1. Get your hippie on at a Tibetan Bowl Meditation class.
  2. Treat yourself to a 7-15 course dinner at Locavore.
  3. Cycle through the rice fields.
  4. See a Balinese Dance performance.
  5. Grab an Indonesian or luwak coffee outside of a temple at night and watch the locals carry offerings on their heads to and from the temple.

Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia – White sand beaches and white tipped sharks

We have made it to Southeast Asia and the second section of our trip! Our first stop in Southeast Asia was Indonesia. When researching where we wanted to visit in Indonesia we realized that Indonesia is a huge country and we weren’t going to have enough time to see everything we wanted so we settled on visiting Gili Air, Bali, and Flores (Komodo). After visiting this part of Indonesia we know that we will definitely be back in the future.

Watching the sunset over Bali’s volcano Mount Batur.

Our first stop on our Indonesian adventure was visiting the island of Gili Air. The Gili Islands are three tiny islands about a 2.5 hour fast boat trip from Denpasar, Bali. We chose Gili Air because it is more laid back than Gili Trawangan and more exciting than Gili Meno. The island doesn’t have any motorized transportation so the only ways to get around the island are to walk, bike, or take a horse cart. There isn’t much to do on the island except scuba dive, snorkel, and relax on the beach so don’t head here if you are looking for a busy bustling city.

Horse Cart the only way to get around.

We were really excited to visit the islands and Indonesia because it is known for its amazing coral reefs and fish. The diving on Gili Air was really great and we were able to see tons of coral, turtles, schools of fish, and sharks!

Because we couldn’t spend our entire trip scuba diving we also rented bikes one day and “biked” around the island. It takes about 45 minutes to bike around the island and could be faster but half of the island doesn’t have a great bike path and you are forced to push your bike through thick sand instead of riding it. Needless to say we probably could have walked around the island more quickly!

Bike riding/pushing around the island. Only 1743 kilometers back to Singapore and 0 kilometers to Paradise!

Another night while we were on the island we took an Indonesian cooking class and learned out to make an Indonesian dessert (Kelopan), yellow curry, mie goreng, peanut sauce, chicken taliwang, and gado-gado. Indonesians make their peanut sauce in a flat mortar and pestle and it is awesome. We are definitely going to bring back some chicken satay back to the states. The best part of the cooking class was when we were making the mie goreng (fried noodles) and had to add the “white pepper” from Lombok. The instructor told us to taste the “white pepper” which he thought was a mix of coriander and white pepper but once we tasted it we really knew what is was, delicious MSG. You can’t make real misa goreng without the MSG it is just not the same. The Indonesian’s also have an awesomely named condiment called Kecip Manis (pronounced Ketchup Mayonnaise) that is kind of like a sweet soy sauce. If you want the recipes there are on their website.

Big spoon battle at Gili Cooking Class.
Finishing up the yellow curry.

While on Gili Air there was a full moon and the island gets a little bit busier for the full moon parties. Since we had to leave the next day we didn’t party until the sun came up but we did have an awesome dinner on the beach at Scallywags. Indonesia is awesome because the food is really affordable and even at a nice dinner we only spent like $40.

You can also get really great fresh seafood on Gili Air and a lot of the restaurants have daily catch fish outside their restaurants so you just walk up pick your fish and they grill it for you and serve it with rice and vegetables. Dan said he had the best grouper he ever had at one of these restaurants, Wiwin Café, and it was only 100 IDR or about $7.

Local caught fish, calamari, and shrimp. That delicious spotted grouper was our dinner.

Gili Air was a great place to chill out and enjoy the beautiful crystal clear water and white sand beaches. You can see from the rate of construction that this island is not going to be the quaint quiet island for long so get here before it gets too busy and loses its charm.

Top 5 Things to do in Gili Air:

  1. Scuba Dive – If you aren’t certified this is a great place to learn.
  2. Eat freshly caught grilled fish on the beach.
  3. Walk/Bike to the other side of the island, find a cabana and a cocktail, and enjoy the view.
  4. Watch the sunset over volcano on Bali.
  5. Get a Balinese massage (maybe everyday) there are only like $9 USD for 90 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

Tokyo, Japan – Into the future

Japan is awesome! The people are super friendly, the food is fantastic, and it is a developed country where you feel like you are in a different world. We didn’t know if our journey was going to take us to Japan but we are so glad that we made it work and my brother Jack was able to join us.  We spent a total of 12 days in Japan and visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto. The only issue we had was it rained almost every day in Tokyo because a tropical storm was passing through but other than that the trip was great.  The rain wasn’t the end of the world because there are a lot of indoor activities in Tokyo.

Busiest street crossing in the world. 150 people/second at rush hour.

We felt like we really did a lot while we were in Tokyo. We went to the neighborhood of Akihabra also known as “nerd city” where there are a ton of arcade games, nerds, and buildings filled with magic cards, action figures, and manga. We of course had to play some arcade games and found an awesome game that was basically dance dance revolution for your hands. We also went to the Harajuku neighborhood in order to see the “Harajuku Girls” and other interesting characters but I think we either missed them or none of them were dressed up during the day. And you can’t leave Japan without visiting at least one karaoke bar. We only karaoked for a half hour because those places are pricey but we did our best and crushed out some American songs including Top Gun’s Danger Zone.

Akihabra rain getting our gaming on.
So serious. In the zone gaming.

Japan is known for its amazing shrines and temples so we made sure that we hit a few while in Tokyo. We visited the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple that includes the Thunder Gate which is an icon of Tokyo. We also visited the Meiji Shinto shrine and witnessed a wedding going on. The Meiji shrine has these huge gates that mark the entrance to the shrine.

Meiji Shrine giant gate.

Since the rain was putting a damper on our outdoor activities we decided to see a few shows while in Tokyo.  We went to the Kabuki theater which is a traditional Japanese theater where there actors are only men so the men end up playing women which can be pretty funny. We were lucky that they allow you to buy tickets to only one act because by the end of the act we were about done with Kabuki theater and pretty much falling asleep.

Kabuki theater.

The other show we booked was the Robot show. If you guys have seen Anthony Bourdain’s Tokyo episode he goes to this show and raves about it. We also thought it was pretty amazing. Its giant robots of snakes, sharks, normal robots, loud music, and scantily clad ladies. So all the makings for an epic show. You also are not allowed to stand up during the acts because you might get hit in the head by one of the robots.

Robot show!!


Once the rain cleared we went to the top of the Tokyo Sky Tree which is the 2nd tallest building in the world and has an observation deck where you can really see how huge Tokyo is. The city is massive.

View of Tokyo from Tokyo SkyTree.
Hello Kitty Tokyo SkyTree

Now on to the good part..all the delicious food! That is one thing we are going to miss when we are back in the states bomb Japanese food oh and the vending machines. There are vending machines every 20 feet or so with water, soda, coffee and a lot of the restaurants have vending machines to order your food. You put the money in the machine, select what you would like to order, and out comes a ticket that you hand in when you get inside. This method is genius! Most ramen shops order like this so you can just check out the pictures of what you want and push a button then voila ramen, fried chicken, or gyoza (or all three). That is another thing I need to mention, the Japanese know how to fry a chicken and I had some of the best fried chicken of my life in Japan.

One of the other epic meals we had was a Japanese BBQ joint where you grill your own meat at the table. The reason it was so epic was because of the quality of the beef. They had a selection of 6 types of Kobe beef that was unreal. These beef just melted in your mouth. Amazing. That is one of a ton of things the Japanese have figured out is doing something right and the high quality of food.

Check out the marbling on that bomb Kobe beef. nom noms.

And you can’t leave Tokyo without visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market. We were too lazy to get up that early and see the actual auction happening (we watched a you tube video instead) but we headed to the market for breakfast and had some delicious breakfast sushi. We also had arc clam for the first time which ended up being pretty good.

Tsukiji fish market.

Randomly we ended up going to Tokyo’s Oktoberfest. Yes you read correctly we were at a Japanese Oktoberfest. Since we were missing Oktoberfest in Breckenridge we thought this would suffice and make it 7 years in a row we have been at Oktoberfest! The Tokyo Oktoberfest doesn’t really compare with the Breckenridge version but did have way more German beers that we were able to try.

Random Tokyo Oktoberfest. Who knew we would find Oktoberfest in Japan.

Top 5 Things to Do in Tokyo-

  1. Eat fresh fish at the Tsukiji Fish Market
  2. Go to Robot Show
  3. Buy something from a vending machine (preferably ramen)
  4. Play video games at Akihabra
  5. Karaoke

All in all Tokyo was amazing! Now off to Hiroshima and a ryokan/onsen in Kyoto.

Istanbul, Turkey – New World/Old World & Europe/Asia

Istanbul is one of a few cities in the world that spans two continents (Europe and Asia). It is also a city where you can see the juxtaposition of the old historical side and the thriving new and modern side. Having both of these sides adds to the allure of visiting Istanbul. You can visit the historical sites in the morning, Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque, and cross the Galata Bridge in the afternoon or evening to indulge in the modern cuisine and shopping on the modern side. Istanbul is not only a city to see sites it is a city where you can have experiences you wouldn’t get in other places like visiting a Hamman (Turkish Bath) or smoking shisha and playing backgammon with a Turk.

View of the old town from the Bosphorus cruise.

Even though Istanbul is more famously known for the Blue Mosque its older sister Hagia Sophia is really the must see in Istanbul. This church was built in the 500’s and is enormous, the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside. What is more impressive is that mankind was able to construct such a structure over 1500 years ago. Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine Catholic church but was converted to a mosque after Ottoman rule so you can see both Islamic and Catholic architecture and artwork throughout the building. I don’t think pictures will be able to do it justice.

Hagia Sophia.
Inside main hall of Hagia Sophia.
View of Islamic calligraphy in Hagia Sophia. Those circles are 25 feet in diameter to give you idea of the size of Hagia Sophia.

Across the square from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque that was built in response to Hagia Sophia. After exiting Hagia Sophia we were able to hear the call to prayer from both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. You could definitely tell that there was some sort of rivalry between the prayer callers in each building and an epic “rap” prayer battle ensued. Since both men and women need to cover their knees and shoulders and women need to cover their heads we had to stop by the Grand Bazaar before our visit so I could pick up a scarf. The Grand Bazaar is huge with over 4,000 shops so it’s a little overwhelming but we were able to barter and get me a scarf that I liked for $4.

View of Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia.
Sweet Grand Bazaar head scarf inside Blue Mosque.

Once equipped with scarf for covering my head we headed to the Blue Mosque. It is named the Blue Mosque because of the blue tile work all over the inside. Before entering the tourist entry you are required to cover up and the covering will be provided if you are not currently dressed appropriately. You then remove your shoes and step inside. The inside is beautiful and you get a chance to see the tilework and designs up close.

Blue Mosque.
Inside the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul is located on the Bosphorus straight which is one of the busiest waterways in the world and connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. From Istanbul you can take a local ferry for $10/person up the Bosphorus to a small fishing village on the Asian side of Turkey. The ride takes about 1.5 hours each way and you get to spend 2 hours in the fishing village. If you have at least 3 days in Turkey we would definitely recommend. It is a good way to see more of Istanbul from the water and set foot in Asia.

Fortress on Bosphorus Cruise.

There are a ton of sights in Istanbul but our favorite parts of the trip were the experiences. One of the things you cannot miss if going to Istanbul is visiting a Hamam or traditional Turkish bath. There are a bunch in town but we chose to go to the Cemberlitas Hamam because it is said to be the most beautiful (Its also listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die).  We had a great time. The baths are segregated so Dan and I went our separate ways once we checked in. You then go into the segregated sections, change for the bath, and get escorted to the bath where you get to sit in a sauna or bowl hot water over yourself and relax for about 30 minutes before your masseuse comes to get you for your scrub and massage. Then then proceed to lay you on a giant marble slab/table in the center of the room and give your body a thorough scrub down which is followed by a soapy massage. After this you can either hang out in the bath and relax for a little longer or head to the changing room and have a cup of apple tea. It was awesome, refreshing and relaxing. I’m ready to bring these to Denver!

Cemberlitas Hamam.

One of the other great experiences that we had was hanging out at night at one of the Shisa (flavored mild tobacco) joints, smoking hookah, drinking tea or Turkish coffee, and playing backgammon. We ended up going to the same place two nights in a row because the first night Dan bet the owner that he could be beat him playing Backgammon (or Tavlac as the Turkish say) and if Dan lost we had to come back the next night. Dan put up a valiant effort but ended losing 3-1. The next night Dan faced off against a Syrian from Dubai who was up 3-0 when Dan came back to tie the game 3-3. The Syrian ended up winning 5-3 but you could tell he was definitely sweating it and was not going to be happy if he lost to Dan.


And you all are probably surprised because I haven’t even mentioned food yet! So in case you were wondering the food in Turkey was pretty delicious. We had a lot of grilled or rotisserie lamb, meses (small vegetable plates), kafta, turkish bagels, and baklava. We also got to eat some really good modern Turkish fare in the new town. There is not much to sight see in the new town besides how new world and modern it is but there are a ton of restaurants, shops, and people. It was especially fun to visit at night to see the street performers and the mobs of people streaming down Istiklal street.



We also ended up visiting the Tokapi Palace which was the palace for the Ottoman Empire since the 1600’s. This is a sight to visit if you have done everything else and are looking for something to do. There were a lot of lines but the tile work is outstanding, you get a great view of the Bosphorus, and you get to see a 74 Carat Diamond and other neat jewels owned by the throne. There is also an interesting “historic relics” room where you can see Moses’ staff and Muhammed’s footprint, pieces of his beard, etc. You can come up with your own conclusions but I’m not so sure that these historic relics are the real deal.

Overall Istanbul was a great city to visit. Not sure I will need to go back but definitely worth the trip and a must see city!

Top 5 Things to do in Istanbul-

  1. Visit Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque
  2. Get scrubbed at a Hamman
  3. Gorge yourself on spit roasted local lamb
  4. Smoke shisha and play backgammon with a local
  5. Eat Baklava while drinking Turkish coffee