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 →

Mulu’s caves (actually BATS!!!!!!!)

For 3 days we were in Mulu (which is in Borneo), and we were exploring almost the whole time! We went to 4 caves over the course of 2 days. These caves were: Wind cave, Clearwater cave, Deer cave, and Lang cave. In deer cave we saw BATS! They were flying around the cave, and in big groups on the ceiling. In Clearwater cave we saw two tiny bats curled up in a hole in the ceiling. On the way to our canopy walk we saw a bat sleeping in a curled up leaf. When it saw us it woke up and rotated a little. The bats were so cute and I loved them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

We also stayed at a fancy hotel. We did a canopy walk and saw monkeys, a lizard, and a hornbill. It was fun walking up in the air.


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.

The amazing islands of Perhentian

For five nights we were in the Perhentian Islands. They are probably the best place in the world. We had LOTS of fun, playing on the beach, swimming, reading. It is a paradise, with turquoise water, tiny sharks, turtles, and other amazing things. we saw 2 adult turtles, and there was a turtle hatching, so I saw baby turtles. We went on a snorkeling trip, and saw a tiny shark. We also saw 2 (also tiny) reef sharks at the beach. I especially loved swimming out to a platform they had. In the middle of the day it was necessary to take a break from swimming, and stay in the room because it was too sunny to stay outside. One night there was a GIANT thunderstorm, and it was POURING. Even walking from the cabin to reception got me soaked. We also saw MONKEYS!!



this was taken during a lightning flash at night.


Bhutan (7 days)

After leaving Myanmar, our next destination was Paro, Bhutan. There are only a couple flights into Bhutan per day from select locations, so we had a pretty long journey to get there: we hopped from Lake Inle to Yangon, then onto Bangkok, staying there overnight (actually two nights because we missed one flight to Bhutan) before flying on to Paro International Airport the next morning with a stop in Guwahati along the way.


Hiking to Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Bhutan, unique among the countries we’re visiting, requires arrangements with a tour company before issuing a visa. The government sets a minimum price per day per person which pays for a guide and driver, 3-star accommodations, and all meals. Also included in the per-day price is a $65 tariff that supports the country’s free healthcare, free public schools, and road maintenance.


Pun-filled warning signs were omnipresent on the mountain roads

Due to this unusual setup, we felt very well taken care of, and also very busy. There’s a lot to take in, and the default was to show us as much as possible. After a few days we were feeling pretty exhausted and requested a more relaxed pace. Later our guide told us he felt guilty about dropping us off at the hotel so early (usually around 3pm) but we assured him it was exactly what we wanted.


All our hotels had amazing views

Just about all the culture a tourist might encounter in Bhutan is related to Buddhism, the monarchs, or both. As explained to us, the country’s history essentially starts at the introduction of Buddhism to the area in the 7th century by Guru Rimpoche then jumps to The Great Unifier in the 17th. He subdued the tribal leaders of his time and is revered almost as much as Buddha himself. When he died, the tribal leaders took over again until the establishment of the current monarchy, the Wangchucks, in 1907. The currently living kings (referred to as K4 and K5) are also revered as demigods, especially K4, who abdicated in 2008 after transitioning the government to a representative democracy.


Largest seated Buddha in the world


Celestial beings on the second level for scale


(Second?) Buddha carved into a rock

But even more impressive than the rich culture is the scenery. Bhutan is all steep valleys with high-flying mountain passes between them. The roads are stunningly beautiful (and scary – we were fortunate to have a professionally trained driver). A monastery crowns every ridge and is usually reachable only on foot.


Chelela pass, the highest road in Bhutan at 13084 feet

Due to the tourism arrangement, it was slightly difficult to escape the tourist bubble. Fortunately our Seattle-resident travel agent Jill and her family were in Bhutan at the same time, and invited us to their house one evening. Ruby spent the night with her daughters and we borrowed a gho and kira (Bhutan’s mandated national dress) for a night on the town.

Later we attended a picnic with Jill and our guide Kinley’s families. Everyone was excited to teach us the local dances and we felt very welcomed. For our part, we got the Bhutanese playing Frisbee.

If you’re even a bit interested in traveling to Bhutan, I highly recommend contacting Jill at Cypress Himalaya Tours. When we missed our flight to Paro, she rebooked and rearranged everything in one day, which was a lifesaver for us.

Our guide Kinley was also excellent. We often had people from other groups drift over to soak up his boundless knowledge. His English was nearly flawless, and did you know he plays in a rock band?


Kinley hiking to Tiger’s Nest

Kinley and our driver Tshering were our constant companions for over 7 days. Sometimes the server-served relationship was a bit uncomfortable for me (“Can I grab my bags before Tshering does?”), and sometimes I could feel myself slipping into complacency (“No worries, they’ll take care of our bags and close the van door and check us in”). By the end I started to feel some relaxed friendship brewing between us, which was great but bittersweet because it was the end. It was tough to say goodbye, but hopefully we’ll see them again on our next visit to Bhutan.


Saying goodbye at the airport

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Kate’s book recommendation: I like to read books set in the places I visit for additional context, history, and color. For Bhutan, I recommend Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa.

New friends and a painting class

Last Friday we went to our friend Jill’s house. She has two daughters, Kaya, who is ten, and Kasey, who is six. Me and Kaya built a Faerie pool, and water slide. Jill is American, and used to live in Seattle, so that’s how we know her. Kaya and Kasey are half American, half Bhutanese because their dad is Bhutanese. We had lots of fun, and I ended up having a sleepover at Kaya and Kasey’s house, and in the morning we had banana pancakes!

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This is Kaya

I also did a painting class that day. The teacher drew an outline and I colored it with paint. After I left, he touched it up. I did the four harmonious friends. The shop was small, and there was also someone else painting there.

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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.

E-bikes and temples


That’s “hello!” in Burmese. I’m in Bagan, Myanmar, and that’s what the language is. This is us sightseeing today! We went to some temples, and guess how we got there? By e-bike! It’s basically a motorcycle, but slower, and electric. The Buddhas inside were gold-plated, and at one you could add gold plate to one for luck. All the temples basically looked the same as the one in the picture. I also put in some Buddha pictures too.

Hot and sweaty,