Seoul, South Korea (3 nights)

Our final stop was in Seoul, where we were graciously hosted by Mr. Kim, my brother’s wife’s father. With only two full days, we couldn’t see everything we wanted in Seoul, but here are the highlights from our short visit.


Korean cooking class

Ruby loved our previous cooking classes so much that we squeezed in one more. We shopped in an especially airy and clean market, then prepared the Korean dishes japchae and bulgogi. The cooking school was held in an apartment where we were surrounded by beautiful hand embroidery. As in our other cooking classes, we were encouraged to wear silly aprons and ate too much delicious food.



At my sister-in-law Kyoo’s recommendation, we tried a Korean dessert called patbingsoo. Traditionally, it’s made of finely shaved ice with red beans and condensed milk, but in recent years all kinds of variants have been created. We tried one that had mango and cheesecake pieces, and another with honeydew melon. It was tasty and similar to eating a giant ice cream sundae.


Odd museums

On our last afternoon, we let Ruby choose where to go. Her choices were Poopoo Land and Seoul’s Trick Eye Museum. Poopoo Land is just as hilarious as you might imagine: a small museum filled with model butts, fake poop, fart noises, and toilets. Continue reading →

Kyrgyzstan (9 nights)


Kyrgyzstan exceeded my high expectations, and I really enjoyed our time there. We stayed in Bishkek, the capital, for two nights at the beginning and end of our visit, and spent the rest of our time out in the countryside with our guide/translator Azis. He’s from the village of Kochkor and gave us countless insights into Kyrgyz culture.


We spent a whirlwind day in Bishkek buying boots and warmer clothes, then drove to Kochkor, where we stayed at Azis’s family’s homestay. There, we got to help make a traditional felt rug with his parents.


Horse trekking (Song-Kol Lake)

We took a two-day horse trek from a place near Kochkor over a couple mountain passes to Song-Kol Lake. We stayed with a nomad family in the middle, and after getting to the lake we stayed an additional day and night relaxing at a yurt camp. Being on a horse for five hours a day, two days in a row, was a little hard on our backsides. We enjoyed it anyway, and had fun getting our horses to a gallop by the end. The landscape was astoundingly beautiful – the best of the trip, in my opinion.


Issyk-Kul Lake and the hunting eagle

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Sri Lanka (5 nights)

Sri Lanka began as just a layover between Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan, but I quickly got excited about what we could see there and our planned visit grew by a day here and a day there until it became six days. It still felt rushed, and I’d recommend more time.



Elephant Gathering (Kaudulla National Park)

In the dry months, hundreds of wild elephants from all over Sri Lanka gather at two massive lakes in this area because most other water sources are dried up. The gathering spans two national parks, Minneriya and Kaudulla. The best park to visit depends on the day, and where the elephants have chosen to wander. From the town of Polonnaruwa, our home base for wildlife viewing, we joined a group of 4x4s in Kaudulla park. We saw an incredible number of elephants (our estimate: ~150 across several herds). It was a little mind-bending to remember that they’re completely wild and are there simply because they want to be.


Monkey Camp and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

Thanks to Airbnb, we were able to stay at an actual monkey research station. That afternoon, we toured the ancient ruined city of Polonnaruwa with a research scientist who taught us all about langurs and macaques, who are much smarter than langurs and treat them kind of like pets. Continue reading →

Malaysian Borneo (6 nights)

Borneo! I was excited to finally visit this mythical locale of exotic adventure stories. We opted to visit the Malaysian state of Sarawak, which is the northwest part of the island of Borneo. Aside from a brief middle-of-the-night stop in Singapore, this is the closest to the equator we got and we definitely felt the heat.


Known as the City of Cats, Kuching is the largest city in Sarawak. We did three main things in the area: see wild orangutans, learn how to bake and decorate cakes, and visit a traditional longhouse.

First we visited the Semenggoh Wildlife Center, where rehabilitated but wild orangutans come for twice-daily feedings at their whim. We were lucky to see seven, including the youngest of the group, the darling three-year-old Ruby (yes, that is her name!). We took some cute videos: video 1, video 2, video 3, video 4.

We spent two afternoons at the Anna Cake Training Centre. On the first day, we learned how to make the complex Kek Lapis Sarawak (Sarawak layer cake). It was repetitive, but we enjoyed it and the cake was delicious. On the second visit, we opted to learn traditional cake decorating techniques, including smooth frosting, piping, roses, and leaves. Afterward we returned to the guesthouse with three cakes to share and made a lot of people happy.

Finally, we spent a night in a traditional Bidayuh longhouse village. After an afternoon trekking to a jungle waterfall, we got to see and try traditional costumes, dance, and instruments. We enjoyed seeing how the villagers are blending traditional culture (close, mostly related community; bamboo structures; pigs and chickens) with modernity (electricity, tourism). Continue reading →

Malaysian Peninsula (10 nights)

Perhentian Islands

Ruby pretty much covered it in her previous post. We loved the Perhentian Islands, and it was relaxing having a vacation from our travels where we didn’t pack up and move every 2-3 days. The snorkeling was fantastic! We stayed at Coral View Resort on Perhentian Besar, which we’d recommend (as well as the local travel agent, Anjung Holidays).

Jungle Train

I really wanted to take at least one train ride on this trip, so we chose the Jungle Train between Kota Bharu (near the Perhentians) and Kuala Lumpur. I loved the chance to sleep on a train! It feels a little magical and soothing and thrilling all at once, and I was personally glad we did it. I wish we had more long-distance train rides planned.

That said, there were several drawbacks overall and I would caution that it’s not for everyone. Grant didn’t sleep well on the train because the bunks were pretty short and there was nowhere else to put luggage. Also, in order to make the train schedule work, we ended up waiting 11 hours in non-air-conditioned train stations over two days. It took a huge amount of time in addition to the train ride itself. Finally, the overnight Jungle Train is, as I should have expected, at night and therefore it’s dark and we missed the supposedly dramatic mountain scenery.


Kuala Lumpur

On this trip, stopping in a big city feels a bit like a weekend at home. We relax ourselves and our rules, do errands and chores, and have downtime. We spent 3 nights in KL and only went out to see one thing: the Petro Sains Museum (a science museum sponsored by Petronas). The museum was a lot of fun and worth a visit, despite its pro-oil slant.

The rest of the time, we were either in our Airbnb apartment or the neighboring mall, where we spent a shocking amount of time. We bought things we needed (including these excellent travel pants for me), ate several meals, saw a movie, had pedicures (me and Ruby), and had a massage (Grant). One of the best parts was leaving town with 100% clean clothes thanks to the washer in our apartment.


Kate’s book recommendation: I like to read books set in the places I visit for additional context, history, and color. For the Malaysian peninsula, I recommend The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka. I also read Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan, which I thought was OK but not as good.

Myanmar wrap-up

We spent 9 days in Myanmar. It was exciting to finally visit this country that I’ve dreamed of seeing for so long! Here are my parting thoughts and advice for anyone who wants to take a trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma).

  • At this time of year, Myanmar felt very hot – in the 90s (except Inle Lake). Having A/C in our lodging was pretty important and it became a requirement.

  • One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Myanmar was that it’s newly open to tourism, and we hoped that we wouldn’t feel squeezed for money all the time. It lived up to those expectations! Most Burmese were either friendly and curious or indifferent to us, which was great. I don’t expect this will last for many more years, though.
  • 20160620_125034It’s advised that tourists’ clothes cover their shoulders and knees. After a couple days of suffering in convertible pants, Ruby and I bought some breezy Burmese pants to be more comfortable. I was especially short on t-shirts and couldn’t wear the tank tops I brought. Next time I’d pack different clothes. NOTE: in touristy areas like Bagan, we saw some tourists who weren’t following the guidelines and they stuck out but nobody stopped them. We felt more comfortable following the local style, though.

  • You will need a lot of kyats (Burmese currency) because most places only take cash, guesthouses included. We ended up visiting ATMs, which are fairly ubiquitous, on an almost daily basis when we could have just gotten or exchanged more money up front. The reason we didn’t was because the highest bill they have is 5000 kyats (a little less than $5) so you end up carrying around giant piles of cash like this stack of 440,000 kyats (~$372):

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Inle Lake (3 nights)

Our last stop in Myanmar was a place called Inle Lake. The towns are pretty nondescript, but the lake itself is stunning. One day we hired a boat driver to take us out on the lake to see the sights (with a request to avoid the touristy market).

We saw people doing traditional work, from fishing to silver working and weaving.

The rest of our time in Inle Lake we spent in our guesthouse in Nyaung Shwe. We were due for a business day, the breezy, open common area was very comfortable, aaaaand we got sick (to varying degrees; Ruby had it easiest). It was bound to happen eventually, and we were able to take the time to rest that we needed.

Bagan (2 nights)

Bagan is an ancient capital of Myanmar, and because of that, the landscape is riddled with pagodas and stupas. They’re almost everywhere you look, and yet every time you see one through the trees it’s a delightful surprise.

We spent our one full day in Bagan exploring temples by e-bike (electronic motorbike). Our hotel encouraged us to rent e-bikes from them as the best way to get around, but I was concerned about safety. After Grant and I  conferred with Steve and Sarah, we concluded it was okay to give it a try. I’m so glad about that now! Riding the e-bikes was incredibly fun. They offer the freedom and wind-in-your hair (helmet) feel of a motorcycle without the loud noise and bone jarring vibration. Every time you start riding, it feels like taking off to fly.

Ruby rode behind me and loved it just as much as I did. In the late afternoon, she talked us into letting her try driving the e-bike. (We’d seen some local kids her age doing it.) On a mostly deserted, dusty road, Ruby took two short runs, getting the hang of it the second time. She was elated and proud.

IMG_20160617_173807  2016-06-22 at 12.20 PM

We walked around several temples, and admired the many Buddhas and gold plating. One highlight was when we were able to buy a small, thin sheet of gold leaf and make it a permanent part of one of the Buddha statues in the temple. We watched a cloud-obscured sunset from the top of a temple, which gave a lovely view of the pagoda-strewn landscape.

Ultimately though, it was zipping around the country roads on our e-bikes, seeing pagodas large and small drift by, that we liked best. Hopefully we’ll get another opportunity to rent them later in the trip.

Mandalay (3 nights)


Yes, I know Bangkok isn’t in Myanmar! Our connection in Bangkok from Hong Kong to Mandalay was too short and we missed our flight. Quite disappointing, but we rallied and stayed the night at a hotel previously recommended by our Bhutan tour guide. There, we enjoyed our first real street food, and I had an excellent massage.



Our first Burmese dinner

In Mandalay, we ate a dinner of traditional Burmese salads and curries, and as you heard from Ruby, the next day we took a cooking class to learn how to make those dishes. It was more than just a cooking class; it was a full-day adventure that gave us a local’s view of Mandalay. Our guide took us to a market to shop for ingredients, then we stopped at a tea shop for ‘second breakfast’. Tea shops are the center of Burmese culture, but hard for a foreigner to navigate alone because English is rare. With our guide along, we were able to sample everything (with an explanation).

Next we were taken to a beautiful indoor/outdoor cooking pavilion and each made six delicious Burmese dishes ourselves. It was way too much food, and so good we stuffed ourselves until we had to stop. Luckily, then it was naptime!

Later in the afternoon, we took a bicycle ride around the countryside. Ruby intrepidly handled a bike that was too big for her as we rode past fields and villages. We then ended our day atop a scenic hill at an interesting monastery watching the sunset.

As we had heard, Mandalay is hot and dusty. Whenever we returned to our sweet air-conditioned room (a 4-person hostel dorm reserved just for us), it was a visceral relief.


Our room

So, our third and final day in Mandalay was mostly a “business day” where we relaxed in our room and caught up on photos, email, blogging, etc. In the evening, we watched some of an elaborate fountain show in the moat surrounding the royal palace. There were many different types of jets, colored lights, and synchronized music. Ruby was rapt.


We ended our visit with a Moustache Brothers show. It’s hard to explain the Moustache Brothers, but if you’ve seen the Moisture Festival in Seattle or hung out with a circus family, it would have felt familiar. This family-run show consisted of an MC (one of the Brothers) joking and ranting about the previous military regime, interspersed with pieces of Burmese dance (some serious, some comic). The vaudevillian feel was mixed with a sense of horror about the treatment of the Burmese people over the last decades. The Moustache Brothers themselves were imprisoned for six years for joking about the government.

Things in Myanmar seem to be improving politically now. Our guide felt comfortable talking about Aung San Suu Kyi in a tea shop (former hotbed of government informers), and at a temple we saw her on the cover of several publications for sale.

Trip Planning Tools

Planning this 3-month trip for three people was not an easy task. Not only did we have to prepare to travel, we also had to find sub-tenants and partially move out of our house for the summer to accommodate them. We started the planning process in January and began by making a high-level timeline to reassure ourselves it was possible.

trip timeline

After that, we tracked our to-dos in Trello, which was (and still is) an essential tool for us. The great thing about Trello is you can start using it very casually, and later can easily shift to a more detail-oriented approach. We set up a board for our trip with one list for each item on the timeline, and a card for each to-do item in that category. Closer to departure we created a list for every week, and just before leaving we had a list for every day. Now that we’re on the road, we have a list for each country and one for when we return. As we think of something we want to remember, we toss another card in the right list. Trello is easy to use and great for collaboration. (We also use it to track our everyday household tasks, and planned our wedding celebrations with it too.)


Our research was created in a shared Google Drive folder. Some items we created:  Continue reading →