The Rough Life

Sunset in Paradise

Our visit to Southern Thailand was very relaxing and at the same time exhilarating.

The beach on Koh Lanta

We spent a full month staying on the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi.

Dad and the boys

Paradise does not begin to illustrate the thoughts and feelings we share about this part of the world.  If it weren’t for the kids, I would move here and dive everyday.

Dive Site

I have put together a detailed daily schedule to illustrate the grind that we had to endure in paradise.

Our dive boat and second home

Owens’ Family Schedule

7:00-10:00 AM: Get out of bed.

10:00-10:30 AM: Enjoy buffet breakfast on beach.

10:30-11:00 AM: Put bathing suit on and grab book.

11:00 – 2:00 PM: Lounge on beach, swim, read, nap, play Frisbee, walk on beach, look for shells., or make sand castles.

2:00- 2:30 PM: Eat lunch.

2:30PM- 5:00 PM: Repeat pre-lunch routine.

5:00-6:00 PM: Take swim in pool.

6:00-6:30 PM: Watch spectacular sunset.

6:30-9:30 PM: Enjoy great Thai meal on beach with friends. The Massaman curry was incredible. Also, watch locals put on fire show every night on beach.

9:30-10:30 PM: Walk on beach and enjoy Super Moon or lightning show in distance.

10:30 PM: Put kids to bed.

10:30-1:00 AM: Read, talk to Amy and listen to waves.

Favorite picture

Next Day repeat schedule unless scuba diving which would mean getting up early and diving all day in crystal clear water with amazing marine life and great people.

Amy ready to dive

Nick snorkeling...little fish

Alex having fun

Tyler posing for the camera

 

Boys in the pool at dusk

I know what you are saying and yes life can be torturous, unbelievably difficult and demanding, but somehow we gather the strength to carry on.

Care free

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Behind Enemy Lines

Old Bridge of Hoi An

We had heard many different and mixed reviews of Vietnam. We were not sure if we would be up to traveling through this country. I know I was a little apprehensive due to the past our countries share. Funny thing is Vietnam became one of the best times we have had on this trip.

Sunset in Mui Ne

Not only were the people great, but the food was fantastic and the different towns we traveled through are must sees for anyone coming through SE Asia.

We arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) by bus from Phnom Penh. They dropped us off in the heart of the busy city and we grabbed a taxi to our hotel. After checking in we went out for dinner and walked around a bit. We went to bed early because the next day was a big event. My birthday!

So, today was my birthday, and no better way to spend it then visiting the War Remnant Museum. Talk about a heart wrenching and gruesome place. One whole floor was dedicated to photos of war victims from Napalm and Agent Orange. It was so bad that we made the kids wait outside of the exhibit.

War Remnant Museum

Without getting political it made me a little ashamed to see what our government did to the innocent bystanders of this war. The people of Vietnam are still feeling the effects of the chemicals we experimented with during the war. “The Girl in the Picture” is an informative and provocative book about how a napalm attack changed the life of one young girl from Vietnam. It is very strange to see things from a totally different perspective. Walking the halls of the museum you are reading and seeing the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. Granted it is skewed propaganda, but it is still quite different from what we hear at home. Whether I believe or agree with what I am seeing and hearing I feel it is important to get opposing views to world events to gain a better understanding of it.

To brighten up the day we decided to attend a water puppet show.

Outside Water Puppet Show

A water puppet show is where the puppeteers stand under the stage, which is a pool of water, and work the puppets with long sticks. On the sides of the stage are musicians that are playing music, singing, and narrating the performance. Alex and Tyler thought it was dorky, but Nick, Amy, and I actually quit enjoyed it.

One of the biggest challenges walking around Saigon is the dizzying amount of motorbikes on the roads. They are going in all directions and onto the sidewalks. You have to keep your wits about you or you will get run over. The part that takes the most guts is crossing any roadway.

Crazy Traffic

The roads are crammed full with over 6 million motorbikes so it is quit a challenge to get from one side of the road to the other. It turns into a real life game of human Frogger. The trick is to plunge into the moving river of motorbikes and wade your way across to the opposite side. What is amazing is the fact that as you are crossing the street the flow of bikes part around you like you are Moses and the Red Sea. The roads are chaos, but there is a method to the madness. It seems to work for them.

The next day we took a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. These are the tunnels where the Viet Cong and Cu Chi rebels hid and attacked the American soldiers. It was a little strange to be inundated with the propaganda from the Vietnam government about the war at this site. We were shown a movie and given the opportunity to pose with Viet Cong soldiers. Ah, no thank you. I felt the whole thing a little weird for Americans. It made me think and remember all the soldiers who must have died in that area and what they had to endure.

Locked and Loaded

Looking at some of the booby traps that the enemy used it must have been horrific. However, at the end of the tour was by far the best part. Alex and I got to get our Rambo on and fire an M-60, M-16, and AK-47. I think I could have stayed there all day emptying clips into the targets.

After Saigon we headed to the coast to the little seaside town of Mui Ne. This place is a windsurfer or kite-boarder’s paradise. The week we were there was a World-class kite-boarding event.

Everyday we were there we hung out at the beach and watched some of the best kite-boarders in the world fly all over the place. At times there were over 50 boarders in the water at the same time. I looked like the kite festival in Long Beach, Washington but with people attached.

Human Kites

The place we stayed was right on the beach and at night Amy and I could sit outside and listen to the waves crash against the shore and read our books on the deck. It was paradise. The food was good too. Our place was right next door to a restaurant that served fresh seafood for dirt-cheap. Nick liked it not for the food (he won’t eat anything) but for the sand floor. While we ate he could make sand castles.

Yee Haw!

Through the hotel we booked a tour to see the white and red sand dunes just outside of town. The boys wanted to go sand boarding since they enjoyed it so much in Patagonia.  We were picked up in a jeep and first driven to a spot called the Fairy River. This wasn’t someplace we initially wanted to go, but it turned into a pretty cool place. The colors through this canyon were spectacular and the kids enjoyed the hike. Next stop were the white sand dunes where we were able to rent sleds to go down the dunes. The kids were mad because they weren’t boards like in Patagonia, but they had a great time all the same. After plunging down huge white sand dunes headfirst we took off for the red dunes to enjoy the sunset. However, on the way we got a taste of the local Vietnamese police corruption when our driver was pulled over and had to bribe the officers with a little money. Good thing they didn’t need any ID because I had left everything back at the room.

Fairy Stream in Mui Ne

By the time we got to the dunes people were already setting up for the sunset. It did not disappoint. Unfortunately it was a little windy so we cut out right after the sun went down and headed back to town.

We didn’t want to leave Mui Ne, but it was time to head up the coast to Na Trang. Na Trang was a big touristy town with huge hotels and lots of people. This was our first taste of diving in SE Asia and Vietnam. We tried to go with our hotel, but there was a bit of confusion and we ended up singing up with Octopus Diving.

Gearing up for diving

It was just Alex and I diving and the others were going to snorkel. The diving was actually pretty good other then the trash that was on the bottom and top of the water. We got a chance to see our first giant cuttlefish and a huge school of squid. Viz wasn’t very good but we had a good time with Octopus Diving.

Moving on, we continued up the coast to Hoi An and China Beach. This was hands down our favorite place in Vietnam. It was a quiet little town with an old world charm. There were three parts to the town. The first part was the local part and held the schools, businesses, which had the most tailors I have ever seen, and their homes. I think they are born and bred to make clothes and shoes in Hoi An. There are tailors ever few meters. The second area consisted of the old town. It was cut off from motor vehicles after 5pm and contained art galleries and some incredible restaurants.

Top Chefs

We took a cooking class at one of the restaurants and tried our hand at making some of the local dishes under the guidance of the owner. The third place was China Beach. It was a big and beautiful and mostly empty stretch of white sand. The only drawback was Tyler getting sick from one of the restaurants along the beach.

Our biggest joy was biking around Hoi An and the surrounding countryside. We flew through the streets ringing our bells and dodging people, tuk-tuks, and cars. We rode everywhere from China Beach to the Old Town.

China Beach

The only other issue we had was that we almost died on a dive boat. Now I am absolutely not being dramatic here. I was positive that we were going to capsize. It never gives one reassurance when you look back and see a look of terror on the captain’s face. The situation was that we were heading into a channel that had a cross current. The idiot captain kept steering the boat parallel with some of the larger waves. My only thoughts were how I would get Nick and the boys out from under the boat when it went over. Seeing that I am writing this we didn’t die, but we did have to remove our hearts from our throats.

Our last stop in Vietnam was Hanoi. I was very excited to get there and into the heart of ‘enemy territory’. Hanoi and Northern Vietnam are quit different from the Southern part.

Near our hotel in Hanoi

This was the center of the Viet Cong during the war and still is rather staunch in their communist beliefs. Nonetheless, we really enjoyed the city and the people. We were rather disappointed when we tried to go to Halong Bay, which was a 4-hour one-way trip, and got turned away from our two-night boat trip. The whole bay was shutdown due to fog. We were bummed out until we realized that we had a 4-hour trip back to Hanoi (insert sarcasm). Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s number one tourist sites and one of the most beautiful places in all of SE Asia. Weather can’t be controlled, so it is something we will have to plan to do in the future.

John McCain's flight suit

We spent the rest of our time exploring the city by foot, walking around the downtown lake, and joining the locals for movie night at the Cineplex.

One of the historic places we toured was the Hanoi Hilton.

There we saw John McCain’s flight suit and the cells where they kept their prisoners. Very strange being in a POW prison.

One thing to look out for in Hanoi, if you are ever there, are the deceptive cab drivers. We ran into one that had jimmied his meter by moving the decimal point over to left on the kilometer tracker. He tried to overcharge me but I told him to shove it and gave him some money and walked.

The family and I were pleasantly surprised to find out we loved Vietnam. We traveled from Saigon up the coast to Hanoi and ended up wanting to spend more time in the country. However, the south islands of Thailand were calling and the beach was waiting.

 

Halong Bay

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History Lesson in Cambodia

Family at Angkor Wat

Cambodia is a heart wrenching country with a rich history and unfortunately an extremely painful past.

Outside bridge of temple

There are the Angkor Temples in Siem Reap impressive in architecture and scope. The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison Camp of Phnom Phen that will tear your heart out and make you question humanity.

Boys at S-21 Prison

Then there are the people who are happy and resilient despite the setbacks their people have endured. They are a gracious, helpful, and a giving people. We had a fascinating time traveling in Cambodia and our experiences there will be seared into our memories for many years to come.

Our journey started at the border between Laos and Cambodia. We had caught a bus after leaving the island of Dhon Det. The key to being a good traveler is to be informed. Knowledge is definitely power. We did not have knowledge or power when we crossed the border of Cambodia. We gave up our passports to the bus organizer, along with the rest of the bus passengers, to go through the border crossing and get our visas. Again like I said, knowledge is power and if we would have checked to find out about visas we would have found out that the kids don’t have to pay for visas for Cambodia. 90 bucks down the drain. Lesson learned.

Crossing the border

Crossing the border was a snap. It was just one guard standing at the hand-operated gate. He asked us for our passports and we told him the bus guy had them and he let us pass. There was no search or anything. It was just our backpacks and us. We had to sit in the heat for the next hour waiting for our passports. We were hungry so we ate at one of the many food stands along the road. Not the most hygienic, with cows wandering through the cooking area and stalls. We finally got back on our bus with our passports and overpriced visas and were on our way. The bus was a couple degrees above that of Death Valley. We had bought tickets to go to Kratie on our way to Siem Reap. The bus to Siem Reap was supposed to be about 14 hours and we thought it better to stop about a third of the way in Kratie. Plus, a friend of mine had been there years ago and told me crazy stories about a pilot guy with a newspaper hat, but that is a whole other tangent.

Sunset in Kratie

We spent the night in Kratie and ate on the river and watched the sunset. It was a beautiful and relaxing evening.

The next morning we grabbed the bus to Siem Reap. It was an uneventful 10-hour journey.  When we finally got there we needed to grab a tuk-tuk to get to our hotel. The driver was sure that he could get all of our bags and us into his one little tuk-tuk. “NO problem”, he said. I was very doubtful and knew it wasn’t such a good idea. As we were leaving the bus area, seconds after I pulled my leg into the cab, we rolled over down an embankment. Lucky no one was injured. However, the poor guy’s tuk-tuk was damaged.

Andy our tuk-tuk driver

The bright side of this is that we got a new driver who turned out to be a great guy named Andy that drove us around the whole time in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a very touristy town due to the Angkor Temples. There are many restaurants and stores to shop at. I was even able to pick up an external hard drive for my Mac.

The first night we walked to a restaurant and had a great spread of Cambodian fare and thirst quenching fruit shakes that hit the spot after a long day of travel.

View from top of Temple

It was a recommendation from Lonely Planet and did not disappoint. The next morning Andy picked us up from the hotel and drove us on a tour of the Angkor Temple complex. On the way we picked up a wide array of pastries from a place called Blue Pumpkin. It was delish.

Something out of Tomb Raider

The Angkor Temples are a large complex made up of different temples and historical sites. Prior to this I had thought it was similar to other ruins we had visited around the world and the central figure was the Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the central point of the ruins but the square kilometers involved are about 40KM. The complex is vast and takes days to fully explore. On our first day, we explored the North and East portion.

Sacred shrine

We were able to climb, and discover many different and unique temples and religious sites. For lunch we stopped at a small food stand outside one of the temples and sat with the locals. They were fascinated with the children and especially Nick with his golden hair. I heard all about the women’s life before I got her sales pitch to buy from her stall. I relented and purchased a couple t-shirts from her. I am such a sucker!

Lady gave all of us blessings

That night we were craving American like food and went to a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier. Who would have thought you would find great pizza and hamburgers at place with a name like that. We wanted to call it an early night because we were getting up the next morning to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise, but it was Valentine’s Day and the kids wanted to go out for dessert. Our new favorite ice cream joint called Swensen’s was where we stuffed our faces with the best ice cream in SE Asia.

Blurry-eyed and groggy we got up before sunrise and made it to Andy who was waiting downstairs for us. The poor guy must have had a hot date the night before because he got no sleep. Oh, to be young again! When we got to the temple it was still dark and people were already starting to congregate inside.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

What we thought was going to be a awe-inspiring experience was a big disappointment that took place with a thousand of our closest friends. The bright side was that we were there before the hoards of tourists arrived and got a chance to explore the fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site. On our way out the temple grounds we came across a couple from Belgium that we had met on the bus from Laos. Amy and I had briefly flirted with the idea of continuing on the bus to Siem Reap without getting off in Kratie for the night.

View from top of Angkor Wat

Lucky for us we got off. The couple told us of the ordeal that entailed after we got off. After being kicked off the bus and stranded for hours and hitting “something” in the road they finally got to Siem Reap at 4AM. What a nightmare! After talking with the couple we said our goodbyes and walked back to the tuk-tuk to find Andy fast asleep in the back. We roused him and were on our way to get something to eat.

Interesting view

He took us to one of his friend’s food stalls where we got some good tasting and cheap local eats. Afterward we walked around one of the coolest temples I have ever seen. It was actually one of the pit stops for the show Amazing Race. Which by the way is the one of our favorite shows. Thom Prom is full of rooms to explore and secret passages to find. Around every corner was another Buddha head or face. The detail was impressive.

Buddhas everywhere!

At one point during our visit one of the kids had to go to the bathroom so Amy had to walk all the way back to where we ate. I stayed with Nick so he could run around the temple. Nick and I made our way from the temple to find that Amy and the boys had befriended another traveling family from Idaho named the Long’s. It was really nice to meet and see another American family out in the world traveling. We hadn’t come across a lot of Americans let alone American families in our travels so far. We agreed to meet later for dinner and we went on our way. Our last place to visit for the day was the temple complex used in the movie Tomb Raider.

Pics with locals

It was beautiful and least restored complex that we visited. There were enormous trees growing over parts of the temple, which gave it a cool vibe. At times I felt like Indian Jones. I kept waiting for a wall to collapse and a huge boulder to roll after me.

That night we met up with the Idaho family and went to the same restaurant to eat that we had eaten at the night before. It was a nice evening of conversion and comparing of stories. I know the boys really enjoyed being able to talk to other American kids their age. We knew to finally call it a night when Nick fell asleep at the table. It had been a long day for us all.

We caught the bus the next morning to take us to Phom Penh. Arriving in Phnom Pehn we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers. After choosing one we were shuttled off to a hotel we had chosen through Tripadvisor. The driver tried to take us to another hotel but it was really sketchy and we insisted on him taking us to the hotel of our choosing.

Walking through the 'Killing Fields'

Our feelings in Phnom Pehn from the get go were that it made us feel a little uneasy. We had read many things about a lot of undesirable things that occur in the city. We wanted to have nothing to do with this so we made sure the children we in sight and by our side at all times.

There are two main things to see and experience in Phnom Pehn and they are the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison.  If you are unfamiliar with what happened here or want to learn more you can watch the movie “The Killing Fields” starring a young Sam Waterston or pick up one of the many books on the subject. I recommend the book, “They killed my Father” for an interesting perspective.

Monument full of bones found at the site

In a nutshell, what happened was the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, overthrew the government and began to slaughter any and all people that opposed or could be a threat to the new government. Pol Pot wanted to establish a agrarian utopia, but ended up committing one of the worst genocides the world has ever known, killing one third of the population of Cambodia. Just to think this only happened a little over thirty years ago.

The place we visited was one of the many mass graves that make up the area of the ‘killing fields’. This is one extremely depressing place. The main building of this area is a tower that is filled up with skulls and bones from the hundreds of bodies that were pulled from this grave area. Walking around the grounds you can still see bone fragments and pieces of clothing still coming up through the soil. This is a very graphic and shocking place but we felt it was a place and a story that our children should know.

'Killing Tree'

By far, the most shocking and appalling things at this site, one that will be forever burned into my consciousness, is the ‘killing tree’. The ‘killing tree’ was a tree used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and young children. To save bullets they would grab the kids by the ankles and smash them against the trunk of this tree. It is beyond me what humans are capable of doing. After a brief visit to the museum at the site we got back into our tuk-tuk and made our way to the one of the prisons that were used by the Khmer Rouge to torture and imprison men, women, and children deemed a threat to the new government.

Tour at S-21 Prison

At this site named S-21, we hired a tour guide to show us around the grounds. Things have not been changed much since the days the prison was a functioning death camp. You can still see blood on the floors and ceilings of many of the cells. The guide had many stories about the prison, prisoners, and guards. The Khmer Rouge kept very detailed records of all prisoners and what happened to them. It was very sad to see children around the ages of Alex and Tyler in pictures on the walls. It was tough to think about what must have happened to them.

Pictures of some of the many prisoners and victims of S-21 Prison

There were only a few survivors of this prison. At the end of the tour it began to dawn on me the age of the guide and I asked her what her experience was like during the Khmer Rouge regime. She teared up and began to tell us of the how her family was killed and she was made to work hard labor in the rice fields. She was only 12 years old at the time.

This country and its people have given us a real experience and I hope an enduring impression of what human beings can do to each other and opened our eyes to the how lucky we are to live where and how we do. Not only have we learned of the horrors of genocide, but have witnessed the strength of the human spirit in the Cambodian people who continue to endure and strive for better lives.

One of the seven survivors of the prison camp

Only Survivors of S-21 Prison

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Life on the Mekong

 

Slow boat at dusk on the Mekong

 

 

You would think that spending two days couped up with three young boys and drunken backpackers on a slowboat to Luang Prabang would be hell on earth.

 

Onboard boat on the Mekong

However, it turned out to be a peaceful and rewarding experience.

 

We started our journey in Chiang Khong in Thailand where we had to cross the Mekong River to enter Laos.

River life

Once we got or Visa and Passport stamped we caught our boat for the two-day 16-hour ride. We quickly made friends with some Germans named Dirk and Maren. Our nickname for Dirk became Che after the people running the boat tried to overcrowd the boat. “Che” started the passengers chanting, calling for another boat. Passengers 1, Boat Crew 0. From there we became fast friends and spent much time together during the following weeks.

Boats at our overnight stop

The trip itself takes two days with eight hours on the boat each day and one night spent in a small river village. The Mekong is not what I pictured. It is a beautiful and interesting river. The rock formations are fascinating and added to the rivers beauty. As the hours pass by quickly one needs to keep paying attention out of the boat or you will miss not only the landscape, but also the amazing people of the Mekong.

Fishing on the river

People were fishing, washing clothes, and panning for gold on the edges of the river. When we would stop, children from the different villages would rush our boat and try to sell the travelers their goods. Another common sight on the river’s edge were the many water buffalo that graze and cool off near the river. Sometimes it felt a bit surreal floating down the Mekong River in Laos.

 

Once we arrived in Luang Prabang we had to hussle to find lodging. It was the Chinese New Year so most of the hotels were full, making it difficult to find a proper place to lay our heads.

River children trying to make a buck

Finally we found a family run establishment right down the street from the main area of the city. Luang Prabang is a cute little town with a definite French influence, but with a strong Buddhist presence. One of the interesting things that happens in any community that supports a Buddhist Temple like Luang Prabang, is that at dawn the monks make their way to their temple and local people line the sides of the road to offer free rice to the monks.

Monks in Luang Prabang

It is their way to show their appreciation and to help feed and support the humble servants.

 

Amy and the boys spent the majority of the time swimming in the river with the monks and renting bicycles to ride around town exploring. Unfortunately, I came down with a bad head cold and was laid up for a couple of days.

Riding bikes with Mom

Time does not fly watching bad movies in Laotian in your hotel room.

 

One of the highlights of the city is its night market that starts around 6pm and runs until late. Here we ate and browsed the many different stalls and also where we met some friends for dinner that we hadn’t seen for awhile.

Street food

To add to the many ‘small world’ stories out there, we had met this couple on the boat we sailed on in the Galapagos Islands in early October. It just so happens that we were in the same small town 4 months later. We had a nice time catching up with Steven and Kirsty and comparing notes of our recent travels.

 

After I finally felt better we decided to take a trek and kayak tour of the local area. We hiked through a mountain community and met some of the locals.

Boys playing 'Friendship' game with locals

The kids got a chance to play a local game called the “friendship game”. It is volleyball like game in which you use your feet and head instead of your hands. The boys loved it and had to be dragged out of there so we could continue our journey. We hiked through the countryside and finally made our way down to the river where our kayaks were waiting. Paddling down the river we came across many people, especially young boys fishing with masks and a net.

Lazy day on the river

We ate lunch floating down the river and the boys enjoyed jumping in and floating while we drifted downstream. Tyler became so tired that he fell asleep on his kayak and left the rest of the paddling up to Amy. At one point in our journey Amy and I laughed to each other when we realized how normal it had become for us to be watching elephants trek down the middle of the river. Back in town we again enjoyed the market and the great baked goods we could buy on the cheap and eat with our coffee in the morning.

Enjoying a crepe

Another great treat that we partook of every night was fresh crepes from one of the many street vendors. Our favorite flavors were banana/peanut butter and banana/nutella.

 

From Luang Prabang we travelled by bus to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. We had heard mixed reviews about the laid back capital city, but from our own experience we rather liked it. However, the ride from LP to Vientiane was from hell.

Actual bus from our ride over the mountains

We traversed along a narrow 2-lane road through the mountains for about 9 hours. The scenery was beautiful but it was hard to enjoy when we had our stomachs in our throats. When we finally arrived in Vientiane we needed to find a place to stay. We joined a group of people in the back of truck cab and got a ride into the city. It seemed as though every hotel and hostel was filled up. We finally got a hotel and were able to relax and then get a bite to eat. The biggest surprise came the next day when we went for a walk to go get a cup of coffee and found a market that had a wide array of grocery goods that reminded us of home. We all got some of our favorite snacks and then we went off to tour the Lao Museum.

Downtown Vientiane

This was our first experience since our travels began where we felt uncomfortable being Americans.  In many of the pictures and propaganda in the museum we are referred to as the ‘imperialist Americans’. My first thought in seeing this was to remember back to the movie “Volunteers” starring Tom Hanks and John Candy. I kept seeing John Candy in the jungle denouncing the imperialist Americans.

Don Khon

On a serious note it was intriguing and eye opening to get a different view of America through the eyes of another culture. This is definitely a scenario we will visit again when we visit Vietnam, but that will be in another blog. As far as the Laotians are concerned they were very friendly to us.

 

The last fun thing we did in Vientianne was to make a visit to the local bowling alley. The kids and I had a blast bowling next to the locals. Afterward we went and had some incredibly delicious fruit smoothies and found a treasure trove of kid’s books at a local bookstore. Score!

Seeing that we had not planned on visiting Laos in the first place, we really didn’t have a set itinerary. One of the areas that came highly recommended to us were the 4000 islands in the south of Laos on the Mekong .

Favorite spot on the river

The two we had heard of were Don Det and Don Khon. We chose Don Khon because it was more suited to us as a family and not the backpackers hang out that Don Det is. To get there we took an overnight bus from Vientiane to Pakse. After our last experience how could we not want to attempt yet another overnight bus.

Boat up the river to see the dolphins

This turned out to be even worse than the last one. First let me tell you a little about overnight buses in Laos. They are not like those of South America where you have your own seat that reclines back.  In Laos the buses have double berths where you can stretch out and lay down. This could mean sleeping next to someone that you don’t know. My bunkmate was a 60-year-old French woman. However, seeing that we were traveling as a 5-person unit the bus attendants had us move to the back of the bus which had enough room for 5 people to sleep across. Great right?

Relaxing spot

No, it was the worst seat on the bus. Have you ever sat in the back of the bus before? You feel every bump and trying to sleep was next to impossible. All I could picture were those old cartoons when the characters would hit a bump and everyone would bounce into the air and come down in different spots. Not kidding, it was almost like that. Oh, and lets not forget the window next to me that was held closed by a small bungee cord. On every right turn the window opened a bit and I was waiting to fall through. By the grace of God we made it to Pakse and had to switch buses. The next bus ride was a short trip to the river where we then caught a long boat to Don Khon. Don Khon is a small island on the Mekong River. People here are friendly and live very simply. The accommodations are very rustic. We got our two rooms for a total of $12 a night. That night I was out reading on our porch and looked up into the eyes of a cow. That was the kind of place we were staying. All that being said, we loved it there. We rented bikes to ride around the island. They had a beautiful waterfall that we visited and a cool beach that we took swims at.

Nice evening boat ride

One night right before sunset we rented a long boat to take us upriver to see the river dolphins. It was a beautiful sunset and night. On the island we got lucky and ran into our German friends we had met on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Another ‘small world” moment for sure. We had a great dinner with them and enjoyed the sweet sounds of the Scorpions unplugged, which I know they loved.

 

Unfortunately our time on Don Khon had to come to an end and we had to grab a boat back to the mainland.  It was time for us to head to Cambodia.

We really enjoyed our time in Laos and were very pleased that we added it to our trip. Luang Prabang is one of Amy’s favorite places and the slow boat down the Mekong was a time to cherish.

The story of the bus ride and the border will come next time in the blog for Cambodia.

 

Sunset over the river in Vientiane

 

 

 

 

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Under the Bodhi Tree

Enlightenment

When visiting any country for the first time it is a good idea to get a grasp of some of the basic rules, customs, and language for your place of destination. In Thailand the wai is the first thing that one must learn to get in good and show respect to the locals. The wai consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The wai is used as a greeting, thank you and for apologizing. The position of the hands dictates the level of respect one has for the individual. Mostly people will place their hands around the chin region. Depending on where you are at   and what you are doing you could have to do this many times in a day, so it is best to get a handle on this and do it in the correct way.

We arrived in Thailand from Australia in the middle of the night. Having done our research we knew we had to get to the taxi station and get assigned one the many pink or white/green taxis that ply the streets of Bangkok. However, Amy and I made a stupid mistake and forgot to write down the name and address of where we were staying. Here we were in a new city sitting in the airport trying to get an Internet connection to get access to of our email. By the way, we had already wasted our time filling out visa forms because we misunderstood the website about U.S Citizens needing file for a visa to enter Thailand. Just to be clear it is not required. Now skip to the present and we are back sitting at the airport unable to get a connection. We finally give up and grab a taxi, figuring that it would work out in the end. Lucky for us the cab driver had a list of places and ours happened to be on it. We stayed at a place called Presidential Park in the Sukhumvit District. This is an interesting district in that some of the swankiest places are located here along with some of the sleaziest.  Not a place to wander to far from the hotel on an evening stroll unless you want to have an interesting conversation with the children about the Bangkok nightlife.

What I find amazing about Bangkok is that it is one of the busiest cities I have ever visited, but one in where the people are still polite, courteous, and peaceful. If you are stuck in traffic in say New York or Seattle and someone cuts you off it is usually followed by a certain extended digit or a few choice words.

Crammed into a Tuk-Tuk

Here in Bangkok locals stay calm in traffic and rarely if ever lose their patience or temper toward other drivers. I met a fellow traveler from Israel who horrified the local drivers with his loud and boisterous ranting about their driving techniques. I find the peaceful nature of the Thai people to be something that Americans should take note of and try to emulate to some degree.

We only spent a few nights in Bangkok and tried to explore and see what we could of the city.

Jim Thompson House

Our first full day had us walking the streets in search of a place called the Jim Thompson House. Thompson is one of the main people responsible for the international appetite for Thai silk and his love of Thai art and culture is reflective in his home. The house itself is a collection of different traditional Thai homes that were brought together to form the large Thompson compound. The story of the man himself is an intriguing mystery in itself. Back in 1967, Thompson was out for a walk in the Western Highlands of Malaysia when he disappeared to never be seen again. No one knows what happened to the guy and the mystery has never been solved.

After visiting the Thompson house, we walked the streets of Bangkok in search of cheap local food. We discovered a popular local restaurant and we all ate top-notch food for the price of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Wat Traimit

We finished our day in Chinatown, checking out the local culture and visiting the first of many wats (temples). It was a 13th century temple called Wat Traimit which contained a 3 meter, 5.5 ton gold Buddha. An interesting fact about the Buddha is that its gold nature was not discovered until 40 years ago when a crane dropped it and the stucco exterior was broken. Many Buddha sculptures have been covered in this manner over the years to help protect them from thieves and marauding hordes.

The next day, we grabbed a cab to the Ko Ratanakosin District on the other side of the city. Traffic was crazy but we were able to get close enough to the grounds of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew to walk the rest of the way. Ko Ratanakosin houses the main attractions in Bangkok.

Temple complex of the Emerald Buddha

The first is Wat Phra Kaew also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The small green Buddha is clothed in royal robes that change with the seasons.

Spiritual Guard

The wat itself is fantastically decorated with the Buddha as the centerpiece. The whole surrounding complex is full of interesting art, murals of the Ramakian, and a miniature model of Angkor Wat.  It takes a few hours to get a full appreciation for the temple area. Outside of this area you can visit the Grand Palace where the monarchs use to live, which now houses museums and other attractions. After visiting the Grand Palace, we headed to the riverfront for another tasty and inexpensive lunch. After filling our bellies with Phad Thai and curry we headed across the street to Wat Pho. Wat Pho is another amazing temple that houses an enormous reclining Buddha. The reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. It is huge! At this point everyone was a little burned out, but Nick and I kept exploring a bit and came across some 350+ Buddha images that lined the outside wall of the temple complex.

Duck...Duck...Goose

Upon further exploration Nick and I found monks in one of the temples in full chanting and mediation. We removed our shoes and sat in the temple for a bit of quiet contemplation. We are now one step closer to full enlightenment!

After a roller coast train ride, we arrived in Kanchanaburi, our first pit stop after leaving Bangkok. Kanchanburi is located about 130km East of Bangkok. Movie aficionados might know this area from the Academy award-winning movie “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”, which was set in this area.

Hellfire Pass

The real bridge was known as the “Death Railway Bridge” due to the plight of the POW’s from WWII that were forced to build the railway from Bangkok to Burma (Myanmar).

Bridge over the River Kwai

The conditions and treatment of the prisoners was extremely brutal. The 415km railway system was built in 16 months by forced labor using only hand tools to cut through the rugged mountainous terrain. We visited the Hellfire Pass Museum and the Kwai Bridge both were sites worth visiting. We also did a pass through both the WWII and Jeath War museums. Interesting, but not very impressive attractions.

We stayed at a resort called the Oriental Kwai. It has been one of our favorite places to stay in all our travels. They had an outstanding restaurant on the river, fishing, a couple of dogs for the kids to play with, a pool, and an extremely friendly staff. They made us feel like we weren’t merely guests, but visiting family.

What big teeth you have

During our stay we decided to visit the Tiger Temple and an Elephant rehabilitation center outside of town. Our visit to the Tiger Temple was a morally conflicting visit.

Like a big teddy bear

Here we were within a Buddhist Temple, surrounded by monks and 500 pound tigers. However, the tigers seemed a bit too docile and we had to wonder how they came to be that way. Sedated or not it was pretty amazing to be right next to a full grown adult tiger.

Amy feeding her cub

By far one of the highlights of our trip came when we were able to enter a cage and play with 1 and 2-month old tiger cubs. When we signed up to feed the tiger cubs we thought we would get a few minutes to pet them. This was not the case.

Feeding a friend

We were escorted to a cage where we were given 30 minutes to feed and play with the tiger cubs with very little supervision. It was like playing with a bunch of playful puppies, but in the back of your head you keep reminding yourself that these were tigers.

 

Can I have one Dad?

For our next experience, we went from feeding cute little cubs to full grown elephants at an elephant rehabilitation center called Elephant’s World. We started our morning by helping to gather food for the elephants by cutting stalks of banana leaves with machetes. Next we rode the elephants into the nearby river with their mahouts (elephant caregivers) and bathed them.

Working in the fields

Adding to this unbelievable opportunity we got the chance to hand feed the elephants rice balls with mango. Standing next to theses animals gave us a great appreciation for them, both for their beauty and for the power they hold. As much fun as spending the day with them was, we didn’t forget that if the elephant so inclined it could destroy us with very little effort.

Moment with a giant

Still, a very awesome day.

 

The following day was a travel day. We grabbed a sketchy bus (no doors!) from Kanchanaburi to Ayuthaya, which is the former capital of Siam (Thailand). Two buses and 4 hours later we were in Ayuthaya. Our first night dining in our new location, I guess I lost my mind because I decided to order a seafood dinner for everyone. Let me just tell you that Amy was none too pleased. On our walk back to our room from the restaurant we came across giant monitor lizards eating from a garbage pile. No kidding!

Washing elephants

The things were enormous.

 

In the center of town are the ruins from the previous capital. The image that sticks with you from all the different areas is a Buddha head from a statue that tree roots have grown around in the area of the Wat Phra Mahathat The irony of this is the fact that Siddhartha found enlightenment under the Bondi tree.

Old Siam Capital

We continued to walk around the park and saw elephants walking around and found an area with different shops and restaurants.

Head in a tree

One of the shops was a favorite of the boys. It contained swords, throwing stars, and all kinds of different weaponry.  I had to explain to them that we couldn’t travel around the world with ninja swords sticking out of our backpacks. I think airport security might have a problem.

 

We caught a northbound train from Ayuthaya to the monkey capital of Lopburi. Lopburi is a town in Thailand, which the monkeys rule. When I say monkeys I mean monkeys. They are everywhere. To walk the streets of Lopburi one must use caution. This we learned the hard way. After a quick trip to 7-11, which are on every street corner, we bought bread, chips, peanut butter, and some drinks to have a quick picnic in the park. On our way to eat, a gang of monkeys attacked Alex, ripped the groceries from his hands and proceeded to eat our food right in front of us. Nasty little creatures!

Damn dirty monkeys!

With hundreds of monkeys everywhere I have to say that Lopburi is not the most hygienic of locations. The ruins of San Phra Kan is their daytime hangout and in the evening they move across the street to Prang Sam Yot. The reason they survive in such great numbers is because Buddhists discourage the killing of animals and locals believe the monkeys are the reincarnated ‘children’ of the Hindu god Kala and to harm one would be to bring on misfortune.

The monkeys of Lopburi

We visited the ‘Monkey Temples’ and later caught an overnight train to Chiang Mai.

 

The train ride to Chiang Mai wasn’t too bad and we got a little shuteye before arriving up north.  On our first day of wandering around we wanted to try something a little different so we went for the fish foot massage. Besides being extremely ticklish at the start it turned out to feel pretty good. However, it was a little creepy considering that the fish were eating the dead skin from our feet.

Yummy...dead skin!

The boys only lasted a minute, but Amy and I squirmed our way thru the entire 15 minutes.

 

One of the things we were looking forward to in our visit to Thailand was the food. To further the culinary experience we signed up for a cooking class.

New friends

The class called for us to pick 5 separate dishes and learn to prepare and cook them. For us it was a bonus since as a family we were able to split up and learn about all of our 10 options.  After the market tour, we were able to spend the better part of the day eating and cooking Massaman curry, fried rice, pad thai, papaya salad, spring rolls, coconut soups and black rice pudding. When we were finished, we rolled our way back to our hotel with full bellies and smiles on our faces.

 

Our next destination was the snake farm. Now I am not a huge fan of snakes. Alex has a corn snake at home and I make Amy get it out of the cage when we clean it. Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed the visit. Cobras, boas, and other slithery creatures were brought to the center arena where snake handlers put on a show.

Kiss of death

One guy had two king cobras in the ring at once and kissed both of them on the tops of their head. They also had a kid about Nick’s age in the ring doing stunts with a snake. Unfortunately for him he got a good-sized bite on his arm (from a non-venomous snake).

 

In our original plans with didn’t count on visiting Laos in our travels. However, we had heard many good things about Laos, so we found a place for it in our itinerary. To get there we decided to take a slow boat from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, Laos. Getting to Chiang Khong we had to travel through Chang Rai. Chang Rai was a cool little city where we got cheap massages and ate bugs at the local market. Yes, you heard right.

Good protein

They had a stall dedicated strictly to bugs. They tasted rather salty. Everyone tried them except Nick, who has a rather finicky pallet. We signed up for a tour van in Chiang Rai that would take us through the mountains and get us to Chiang Khong.

Visiting with a hilltribe

The tour consisted of visiting two hill tribes, the opium museum, and the Golden Triangle. We were joined by another family on this tour, the before mentioned Israelis.  The hill tribes were fascinating to visit and see how they live. The funny part was the clash between past and future. Next to the bamboo and palm leaf huts were satellite dishes. After lunch we did a tour of the opium museum. Surprisingly, this museum, out in the middle of nowhere, is a state of the art interactive museum.

Do you get ESPN?

It was very interesting to learn about the history of opium and its impact on the world trade routes. From there we went to a lookout and had a view of the actual golden triangle, which is the convergence point of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. You can only imagine the clandestine operations that have taken place in this area over the years. They actually have signs asking people to report any suspicious behavior.

 

 

Lookout over 'Golden Triangle'

We eventually arrived in Chiang Khong after dark. We didn’t have any place to stay, but the tour guide helped us to find lodging. At this point the Israelis somehow thought we were joined at the hip and wanted to find lodging together. We really just wanted a quiet place to rest before getting on a boat the next morning. Finally, we found a place that was affordable and would sleep all of us. I think most people that have traveled long term have a place that is a measuring stick for judging all other places. The place in Chiang Khong is that stick for us. We will forever say…”well, at least (blank) isn’t as bad as that place in Chiang Khong”. The lady that helped us to our rooms looked like she had just exited an opium den. She was sweet enough, but seemed a bit insane. The beds in the rooms were extremely uncomfortable and I don’t think had been cleaned for some time. The nightmare was only beginning. The Israelis decided they were going to have a contest within their family to see who could be the most obnoxious until the wee hours of the night. When they finally quieted down it was very unnerving to try to sleep listening to the many rats that were scurrying through the rafters. I kept expecting a huge rodent to run across my chest in the night. Morning couldn’t have come sooner and we packed our stuff and headed out.

 

Our time in Northern Thailand was at an end and we needed to catch our boat to Laos for our next adventure.

I now bring my hands together, place them near my forehead and give a deep bow to Northern Thailand. I would like to give the “land of smiles” special thanks for giving our family memories that we will cherish for a lifetime.

 

Hanging out in Thailand

 

 

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Christmas in Oz

 

Whitehaven Beach

 

 

Hamilton Island is the jewel of the Whitsunday Islands of Northeastern Australia. It is a paradise at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. People from all over the world come here to experience the reef and a slice of paradise. Just before we arrived Oprah was there to visit and spread her magic. They ended up naming a baby Koala after her.

Alex holding the same Koala that Oprah held.

Another claim to fame is a few years back they ran a contest for ‘Best Job in the World’ for the island’s caretaker. It was a well-deserved title until the guy was stung by a jellyfish and rushed to the hospital. This is the only drawback of the island during the peak season. Between the months of October to April there is a warning for the fingernail size jellyfish and they recommend swimming in a stinger suit. This is no joke, a women was stung while we were there. However, the suits have much to be desired.

In our 'smurf suits' ready to dive the Great Barrier Reef

When the family and I donned the suits to swim or snorkel we looked like the Smurf family at the beach.

 

We met my mom on Hamilton Island. It was nice to see and spend some quality time with her. Time with us included two diving trips, snorkeling, sail boarding, paddle boarding, ATV driving, miniature golf games, tennis, basketball, and lucky for her a little time at poolside reading and watching the kids fight in the pool.

The two diving trips were the highlight of Hamilton and might rank up there with highlights for the entire trip. Breaking the surface, entering the undersea world, is like entering an aquarium. I cannot describe the sensation of diving at the Great Barrier Reef.

A little Christmas spirit before snorkeling

We swam around numerous rock and coral formations and thru multiple caves. I cannot relate the amount of fish and sea life we saw. The fun things were sharks, turtles, moray eels, and nudibranchs. My mom, Tyler, and Nick were able to snorkel and see a lot of what we saw, plus Nick was excited to be able to see us diving below him. Our guide was a crazy fun Japanese girl who acted with such excitement and curiosity that it even made it better.

 

 

Grandma and her grandsons in the Whitsunday Islands

I wish we could have spent more time on Hamilton, but we had to continue our trip and head back to Sydney for our stay on Manly Beach.

 

Manly Beach is a beach bums paradise. You can swim, body board, surf, or just laze around and appreciate the people. This was our home away from home for the next two weeks. We would be celebrating Christmas here for the first away from home Christmas for the boys. It is strange to celebrate the holidays in such a different environment from home. The Starbucks peppermint Lattes just didn’t taste the same in 80-degree weather. Our first task was to find a Christmas tree to go with the stockings that my mom brought from home. We wanted to have a little taste of Christmas at the condo. The tree we came up with was a modern day version of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

Our Charlie Brown Christmas

It was a bright green tinseled tree about 3 feet tall. The stand wasn’t in the box so we had to get a container and fill it with sand from the beach for a base. Worked like a charm. Add a few ornaments and presto, Christmas at Manly.

 

The week leading up to Christmas we toured Sydney and visited all the main attractions. There was Taronga Zoo, Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Wildlife Park, Sky Tower, Darling Harbor, and the opera house.

Favorite photo for Alex. Check out ferry name.

Sydney is an amazing city. Overpriced, but wonderful.  One of the highlights for me was the torturous afternoon of taking the kids to see Santa Claus at the downtown shopping mall. The look on Alex’s face as he waited in line with kids half his age was priceless. What children do to please their mothers.

 

Christmas day is one we will not forget for a long time. Santa Claus found the boys and filled stockings and left small gifts for them. Amy whipped up our traditional breakfast of coffee cake and BOB (egg and bacon casserole a holiday favorite). Actually, Tyler was the one that baked up the coffee cake. He is a great cook. After stuffing ourselves with breakfast we headed to the beach to work off some of it with swimming and surfing. It was a perfect beach day.

Beach Day!

 

For the next week all we did was go to the beach, surf, and then swim in the pool until dark. It was a rough week.

Surfin' USA

 

One of the big treats was celebrating New Year’s Eve in Sydney. It was a huge party with tons and tons of fireworks. It was amazing!

After our beach fun at Manly it was time to head out for a two-week exploration of Australia starting on the Gold Coast. Unfortunately God had other plans and decided it was time to open up the sky faucet and flood Queensland. According to news reports it was the worst flooding on record. We had made our way up to Surfers Paradise and were able to visit the amusement parks and Sea World. Just North of there is Brisbane and the Australia Zoo.

Feeding Wallabies at Australia Zoo

The Australia Zoo is home to the Irwin family. The memory of Australia’s beloved Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, lives on at this amazing zoo. We got to see the crocodile show, which was hosted by Teri Irwin and involved Bindi and Robert, their children. That day was memorable not only for the show and the crocs, but also for the ridiculous downpour we experienced.

 

We decided to cut our road trip short and head back to Sydney.

Hanging out with the locals.

The decision was made to stay in downtown Sydney and enjoy the harbors, museums, and everything else the city had to offer.

 

In the end, we had a wonderful time in Australia despite some bad weather. We made lemonade out of lemons and created some lasting memories. We dove the Great Barrier Reef, learned the game of cricket, surfed one of the most famous beaches in the world, had an awesome Christmas, and took in the circus at the Sydney Opera House.

 

P.S. I can’t get that Men at Work song out of my head.

 

 

 

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Somebody Moved the Steering Wheel

Beautiful coastline near Akaroa

This is the story of a young hobbit named Frodo and a special ring. Wait! Wrong story, however, both are set in Middle Earth or other words New Zealand. Thanks to Kiwi Peter Jackson New Zealand is now one huge movie set. Everywhere you go you can visualize hobbits, elves, and goblins. I kept waiting for Galdolf to appear galloping on his horse wielding his magic staff. No such luck, but we did see one of the most beautiful countries on the face of the earth. New Zealand is a tale of two islands. The North Island is the hub of the country with three quarters of its population in cities like Auckland and Wellington.

Sheep outnumber men 8 to 1

The South island is the place where sheep out number men 8 to 1. Amy and I joked that no matter where we stood we could see a sheep. This was virtually true.

We flew into Christchurch after a horrendously long plane flight from Chile. We spent a couple days in Chile in cities of Pucon and Santiago.

I hope it doesn't blow

Other than getting our truck stuck on a snowy back road on the side of an active volcano everything went pretty smooth. The crazy thing about the flight from Chile is that we crossed the international dateline and actually lost a day. November the 16th never existed for us. Amy was disappointed that is wasn’t her birthday.

After finally arriving in early in the morning in Christchurch we picked up our camper van from KEA rentals. Our first stop was the grocery store to pick up provisions for our 3-½ week trek around NZ. Problem was someone moved the steering wheel to the wrong side. Excited to finally be in an English speaking country they had to screw things up by driving on the wrong side of the road. Not only did I have to drive on the left side, but steer on the right side with a manual transmission in a huge RV. Good luck! All I have to say is watch out sheep! After my visit it might be down to 7 to 1.

Our itinerary entailed driving down the East Coast of the South Island and then heading North up the West coast to the ferry that would take us to the North Island and a visit with Amy’s parents. That was our rough draft of what we were planning but we left it open to stop and camp where and for how long that we wanted.

A small town called Akaroa was our first destination. Two minutes into our stop I made my first boneheaded mistake by tearing the power cord to the camper in half. Rule of thumb to all travels and that is ALWAYS carry duct tape.

Hector dolphins at play

Once the problem was solved we enjoyed our time there by taking a boat out of the harbour to site see on the coastline, which included a visit from a pod of Hector dolphins. This is one of the only places in the world to see Hector dolphins, which are the smallest dolphins on the planet.

We spent Amy’s birthday at place called Lake Tekapo.

Happy Birthday Mommy!

The boys got a kick out of the name for some odd reason. The night we arrived Alex and I enjoyed a spectacular sunset while skipping rocks on the shoreline. The birthday the next day was celebrated with a beautiful hike and constant fighting. Always can count on the boys to make those special occasions memorable.

We headed into the mountains for our next stop. Our site was the foot of Mt. Cook. It was cold and stormy, but we were warm and cozy in our KEA. The next day it was pouring down rain.

On a bridge near Mt Cook

We decided to take the hike up to Hooker Lake anyway. Granted we got soaked, but it was still a fun hike.

We made it too our next stop, which was Omaru, just in time to visit a site where you can witness Blue Penguins come to shore in groups of more than 50 and scramble up the beach and rocks to their homes. This species of penguin is the smallest in the world and only found in New Zealand and Australia. We didn’t camp in Omaru and pushed through to Denedin.

In Denedin we visited the local aquarium, a really cool museum (free), local yellow-eyed penguin beaches, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. At the hall we learned a lot about rugby and cricket. Go AllBlacks! To let you know how important sheep are to the culture there is a section in the hall for sheep shearing.

We made it to Curio Bay by nightfall.

Yellow-Eyed Penguin

Curio Bay stretched a couple of miles with empty beaches and a left to right break. Next door to Curio Bay was an interesting area, which is a Petrified Forest and yellow-eyed penguin nesting ground. The night we stayed happened to be the night of a full moon and we were lucky enough to enjoy a clear night with the moon over the bay. Sights like this are memorable.

Next stop for us was Milford Sound in the Fjordland National Park. I love saying the word fjordland. It just feels so good on the mouth. Try it and you won’t stop saying it all day.

Waterfall on Milford Sound

Milford Sound was a beautiful place to visit but I think the drive to get there was even more spectacular. Every bend in the road led to more ohhhs and awwws. To make things more interesting we did a bunch of geocahes on route to the sound. This is always a fun distraction for the kids.

Adrenaline was on the menu at our next destination. Queenstown is the home of adventure sports and we were ready to tackle a few. Our biggest dilemma came in the form of when to celebrate Thanksgiving seeing that we were one day ahead of the United States. We settled on a date and named it ‘Adrenaline Day’. First, we headed to the boat launch to take a jet boat ride down the Shotover River. High speeds and many 360-degree spins later we were back in town and headed to the Kawarau Bridge for the big thrill. Standing 43 meters above the river is the first bungee jumping platform in the world.

Daredevils

Alex, Tyler, Amy, and myself accepted the challenge and took the leap. I even went for the head-dunking version. What a rush! It was one of the coolest things I have ever done.  That night we eat Thanksgiving out of the camper with stuffing, potatoes, chicken (no turkey available), deviled eggs, and rolls. All I have to say is that Amy is awesome!

The next day we drove over the hills and came to Lake Wanaka. The kids were excited because we stayed at a park with a pool, trampolines, and a DVD collection. Outside of Lake Wanaka we went on one of the best hikes I have ever been on to a place called Rob Roy Glacier.  At the glacier it was almost a surrealistic atmosphere. There were tons of waterfalls and a huge glacier coming off the mountain.

Rob Roy Glacier

The best part was that nobody was around.  Back at camp we jumped and swam for a couple days before boarding what the kids had now dubbed the “Rolling Turd” and hit the road for the North Island. However, first we stopped in Abel Tasman to enjoy some beach time. To get to Abel Tasman we had to pass through Greymouth. If anyone were following the news they would be aware of the unfortunate tragedy that took the lives of 29 miners. May their friends and families be in our prayers.

We proclaimed Abel Tasman the Birch Bay of the South.

Peace at Abel Tasman...Birch Bay South

It reminded us of our family cabin and we wanted to stay for an extended period, but we had a ferry to catch.

Before we met up with the in-laws however, we stopped for a hike around a volcano that might be familiar to Lord of the Ring fans, Mt. Doom.

I think I see Frodo and Sam climbing behind me

This was near the location of my second bonehead move where I ripped the stair off of the camper van, but we won’t speak of that.

We met Amy’s parents near the Glow Worm Caves in Watimo. The kids were so excited to see their grandparents!

Outside the Glow Worm caves with Grandparents

We visited the caves the next morning. It was like a ride at Disneyland. The “worms” are actually the larva of a knat, but it does make for a brilliant viewing.

We drove the next day to Rotarua, which I found to be overrated and smelling of rotten eggs. This is due to the many hot springs and geysers. The boys and I did Zorbing before heading out of town. Rolling down a hill inside of a giant clear ball is great fun.

Finally some beach, sun, and peace at the cove

The Bay of Islands was the next destination we had in mind. First we decided to stop at Goat Island. This turned into a pleasant side trip. Alex and I got a chance to get in a couple of dives and we stayed an extra night at the “hippie commune”.

The Bay of Islands ended up being a disappointment to us, so we headed south the next day in search of a beach and some sun. We made it to Wapito Cove and it was perfect. Miles and miles of empty beach, plenty of sun, and time with family. A great way to wrap up our time in land of the Kiwi.

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