Colorado – Rocky Mountain National Park

Old Esteban wasn’t in the best condition for our last trek out to Colorado, nor is he the most comfortable for long distance highway cruising. So we rented a Kia Soul (which we nicknamed Sue Ellen), and she turned out to be the perfect little camping car for a couple. We easily fit all of our food, popup tent, camping equipment, and inflatable kayak. Sue Ellen also hit highway speeds above 65 mph, which was a big plus!

The first stop in CO was to Fort Collins, where we met up with our great friend, Angelica and her awesome Fort Collins friends.  We went to several breweries, and whiled away the evening eating, imbibing, photoboothing, and enjoying a fun bar round of Cards Against Humanity. Our time together is always too short these days, but we know how to make the most of it! We ended the night by driving up to Estes Park to get some good sleep in a hotel for a night before we began camping.

On our first crisp morning in Estes Park we went on a short drive to get a feel for the town and take a quick hike on a trail nearby.  It was a beautiful and secluded long walk and we saw no other hikers, which seemed unusual for a popular town on such a nice weekend. The way the trail ended was also rather unusual, terminating at some kind of water facility. We eventually figured out that we had ended up following the wrong signs and hiking up some kind of maintenance trail. Still, it was a serene and companionable hike, and it’s where Jeff got some of the most interesting close-ups of charred pine logs.

The horseback ride at the Rocky Mountain National Stables was a major highlight of the trip. The afternoon was cloudy and slightly rainy which worked out to be great riding weather. It wasn’t too hot, there wasn’t any intense sun or glare, and visibility was really good. Our guide was helpful and we learned about aspen trees, which together make up one of the largest and oldest living organisms on earth. They’re a clonal species, meaning there’s a tremendous root network running underground throughout a significant portion of the state. What appear to be individual trees are just offshoots of this huge, amazing network. This also means that the offshoots all change into their fall yellow at nearly exactly the same time, resulting in a glorious golden sea of leaves (again, according to our guide). We were a squidge too early to see the aspens in their saffron cloaks, but there were a couple of patches of yellow just beginning to show, and the aspens and pines made up a lovely mountain-top forest nonetheless.

A first for us this trip was dispersed camping (not to be confused with the much more advanced primitive camping). Within the grounds of national forests and under certain criteria, campers are allowed to set up an impromptu campsite (outside of designated camping areas), as long as they leave no trace. We took advantage of this little-known accessibility to enjoy the cozy solitude of a little patch of forest just off the highway. With very little nearby light pollution, Jeff was able to capture some gorgeous shots of the night sky that ended up looking more like the Northern Lights than Colorado.

One day, we took our inflatable two-person kayak out for a spin (literally!) onto Lake Estes. The current was a bit stronger than we anticipated, and since we’d forgotten to plug the drainage hole in the bottom before getting into the kayak, there were a few panicked minutes thinking we’d sprung a leak before we figured out why the water inside the kayak was rising. Jeff, however, saved the day and we proceeded further into the lake, only a bit wetter for wear. The big highlight of Lake Estes, aside from the 360-degree mountain vistas, was that the Stanley Hotel, which served as the stand-in for the fictional Overlook Hotel in the movie version of The Shining, is visible from certain points on the lake. So of course we had to get a few shots of Jeff in from of his favorite movie locale, and it helped set a spooky mood for the rest of the evening. That was the evening Jane thought she heard a bear outside the tent, but it turned out it was just scraping branches and squirrels—much preferable to bears or ghosts!

We got a lot of hiking in, including a shorter ramble around a beautiful, smaller lake, where we saw adorable baby ducks and, surprisingly, a decent number of trees that appeared to have perished in fire.

On the way home, we were lucky enough to meet up with Angelica again in Fort Collins for brunch (thank you for always making time for us, dear), before we headed back across Kansas to our home sweet home. We were making great time with Jane at the wheel for the first half of the trip, but almost the minute that Jeff took the helm, we spied a rainbow up ahead. Thinking nothing of it, other than that it was a pretty end to a long drive, we continued towards the rainbow, and home. Very soon after, we realized that we were heading towards a storm—from the back end! Undaunted, Jeff foraged ahead through the raging, blustering gale and got us home safely, as usual. It was an exciting finish to a whirlwind trip in which we ate our weight in the bulk pears and avocados we brought with us, and enjoyed some of the tastiest curry we’ve had since our trip to Thailand. Now that we’ve made it safely through the storm, we’re happy to report that we wouldn’t change a thing.

The Great Sand Dunes

To celebrate our first year of marriage, we took a road trip out west to Colorado.

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Little Esteban faced his largest challenge yet: scaling the rockies. Esteban did, in the words of Larry David, pretty good.

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The first stop in the trip was the beautiful, quiet mountain town of Frisco. This is apparently not a very popular time to be in Frisco, as a lot of the restaurants were closed, but we made do with a hotel-room picnic complete with wine and cheese. We visited a few scenic overlooks and a riverside park full of bikers and happy dogs with their humans. The air was brisk, but the weather was sunny, and we enjoyed our little taste of winter as a novelty after so many months in the tropics. After two nights in Frisco, Esteban coasted us down through the mountains to Mosca, Colorado, home of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

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Located in southern central Colorado, the sand dunes are a strange and unique attraction. The dunes are the tallest in North America, with the tallest peaks over 750 feet tall. We came very close to skipping the climb altogether, since there had been some rain recently, and we had to cross a shallow but wide creek to get there. We stuck it out with reinforcements, and made it pretty far up the dunes before throwing in the towel. Although easier than our hike up Mt. Batur, it was a long hike through a ridiculous amount of sand. We saw some people sand boarding and sledding down from the highest dunes.

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Being a desert climate, and at the foot of the mountains, there’s a tremendous temperature variation in the dunes from day to night: the daytime high can be 50 degrees warmer than the overnight low. The night we camped in the park, it was rather chilly, reaching a low of about 26 degrees. We debated sleeping in the car, but our little campsite looked so cute, and the sub-Arctic tent proved quite snug. We did have a hungry deer come poking around near dusk, but it was much less frightening than a hungry bear would have been!

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Farewell, Chiang Mai

We are sitting in the Tokyo International Airport, waiting for our flight to Chicago, and we’re so excited to be on our way home!

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But, we thought we’d take the chance to reminisce about the final week of this incredible journey. For our last eight days in Thailand, our great friend Angelica was able to join us in Chiang Mai. It was so much fun to show her around the city, and to have an excuse to do all of our favorite things in Chiang Mai one last time. We even threw in a few new attractions for good measure.

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We started off the week with some excellent jazz at the North Gate on Saturday night, and the next day wandering around the old city, where Gelli found her favorite food of the trip: glass noodle salad (but not too spicy!). We ate and perused the wares for souvenir bargains at the Sunday Night Market, and on Monday at the overwhelming Wararot Market, both of which were convenient walking distance from our hotel.

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Tuesday we went to the major tourist temple of Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep, which proved to be a little commercial for our taste. That evening however, we returned to the lady boy Cabaret for another amazing show that did not disappoint. We didn’t realize this before, but the dancers perform a different show every night, and this one was just as fantastic as the first. We even went up on stage after the show to join in on the impromptu dance party!

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On Wednesday, we woke up early to catch the local intercity bus to Chiang Dao. We arrived at the cave temple early enough that we were some of the only tourists to be seen, which made it very peaceful. We decided to take the 30-minute guided tour through the caves this time around, which turned out to be very worthwhile. Our guide was patient as we stopped to snap photos, and she was happy to point out rocks in the shapes of three-headed elephants, frogs, lions, and the like. The cave was pretty tight in a few places where we had to squeeze through, but it was mostly large caverns populated by huge numbers of tiny squeaking bats.

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In the afternoon, we went to the mountain temple, where the views were beautiful and serene. As we were crossing the parking lot to head back to the bus stop for our return, a nice couple passed and asked if we’d like a ride back to Chiang Mai. We accepted, and learned that the woman’s son was studying to be a Buddhist monk at that temple. We enjoyed talking with them, sharing our snacks, and listening to the Thai Lanna Folk music they had playing in the car before being dropped off to eat dinner.

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The next day was spent sightseeing in the old city at the Three Kings Monument and museum. We sought refuge from the incredible heat in the air conditioned and beautifully furnished library and enjoyed the few issues of National Geographic that were in English. That evening, we went to a Muay Thai fight at Thapae Boxing Stadium. There were seven fights in all, and although most were fairly one-sided, a couple of the fights went to judge’s decision.

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Friday, our last full day in Chiang Mai, was spent the same way as our first full day: at A Lot of Thai home cooking class. The recipes are original and authentic, and the instructor and owner of the class, Yui, is a fascinating and interesting person. She’s very talkative and her stories about cooking in Thailand and other  countries over the years provide unique insight into Thai culture. She’s also an excellent teacher and an amazingly skillful cook. Since she’s self taught, she prefers the terms food lover or Thai cook to the more pretentious “chef”.

After a long day at the cooking class, all three of us were ready for a calm and relaxing evening. Being the last day of the four month journey, however, we decided to go out and do some karaoke.

The karaoke bar we went to offers rooms for rent by the hour. Each room has an incredibly cheesy theme, a few couches, and a tv with a computer with karaoke software. The English language song selection was fairly small but offered enough fun singalongs from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Highlights included Spice Girls and TLC.

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And now the trip has come to an end. It’s been a great four months. The saying is that time flies when you’re having fun, but in the case of this trip, it seems like the opposite has happened. These four months have felt incredibly long, in a good way. Individual days can go by quickly, but the weeks and months have seemed like years. When your surroundings are constantly changing and you’re constantly surrounded by different kinds of food, language, currency, weather and people, there’s no way to fall into a rut or routine. We’ve perceived these four months as much longer, but in a great way. This taste of travel has made us want to see more of our own country, too, and the sleek little car we just bought should be the perfect tool for that task. And we can’t wait to get back to our family and friends (and cats)!

Mekong River Trip

For the final leg of our journey, we traveled from Laos back into northern Thailand. This journey can be made by bus, through the air, or the slowest and most scenic way, by slow boat up the Mekong.

Mekong River Trip-2The first day of the boat trip began early at about 7:30am on a small dock at the outskirts of Luang Prabang. After loading up with about 30 passengers and their gear, we were ready for the nine-hour first day to our overnight stop in Pak Beng, Laos.

Mekong River Trip-15The boat was filled with all different kinds of travelers: tourists, local Lao people, Buddhist monks, and even a few brave families traveling with small children.

Mekong River Trip-21Mekong River Trip-1The leisurely cruise up the river was a great chance to see rural Laos. We saw children playing on the sandy beaches, boats hauling in nets of fish, water buffalo grazing and goats climbing on sheer cliffs. We took the chance to wave at everyone we saw (even the water buffalo), and most of the humans we passed waved back.

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Since we were cruising against the current, the trip from Luang Prabang to the Thai border at Ban Houayxay took two full days. We had the option of taking a smaller and faster vessel that would have cut the trip down to one day, but we’d heard some horror stories about the safety of these speed boats. It was also a little bit disconcerting to see the captains of these tiny vessels wearing crash helmets and life vests as they zipped by.

Mekong River Trip-3Sunset on the Mekong was one of the major highlights of the journey. While we brought reading materials, we spent most of our time on the boat staring out at the gorgeous scenery all around us. It was also fun to chat with fellow travelers, especially those who spoke French and Italian.

Mekong River Trip-6 Mekong River Trip-8Mekong River Trip-11 Some of our favorite new friends were a Kuwaiti man named Redha and an Italian woman named Selvaggia. When we stopped for the second night on the Thai boarder, we invited them to join us for dinner, and we all had a great time getting to know one another better over spicy food and cold beer.Mekong River Trip-22 The last day of our trip back to Thailand was a flurry of activity getting through customs on the Lao side, and arriving on the Thai side of the boarder, followed by a sleepy, four-hour bus ride back to Chiang Mai. So now we’re back where we started, and looking forward to one last week in Thailand before finally making our way home!

Luang Prabang, Laos

Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a landlocked country with a difficult recent history. After gaining independence from the French, Laos enjoyed a brief period of monarchy with a modest but beautiful palace in the city of Luang Prabang, where we spent most of our stay in Laos.

Luang Prabang-47Luang Prabang-30Luang Prabang-29Unfortunately, this period of peace was followed by a long period of strife, as Laos was invaded by Northern Vietnam in the late 1950s, and was heavily bombed by America along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which functioned as a Northern Vietnamese supply line during the Vietnam war). Laos then experienced a long period of civil war and violence as the country completed its transition to socialism.

Luang Prabang-28Compared with Eastern Laos, Luang Prabang was left relatively intact. The entire city is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is of special cultural or physical significance. The whole of the old city is filled with beautiful Buddhist temples, restaurants, and resorts, topped off with incredible views of the Mekong river. The whole city also smells like flowers, which makes Luang Prabang the most aromatic destination we’ve experienced on our trip.

Luang Prabang-46Luang Prabang-16As Laos is now a communist country, the Lao government has no interest in restoring the temples or Buddhist statues that were destroyed during the country’s periods of war and neglect. At the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum, we observed a Japanese group who volunteers one month every year to visit Luang Prabang and teach local university-level art professors how to properly restore damaged Buddhist statues. We also had a chance to visit the former Royal Palace (unfortunately, there were no photos allowed inside).

Luang Prabang-14We were somewhat surprised at the modesty of the former royal residence. Although there were ornate and intricate mosaics and murals on the walls of many of the reception rooms, the size of the palace itself was quite unassuming. The inner rooms were outfitted with quite simple furniture, and paintings of the few generations of the Lao monarchy. On display were gifts to the Lao government from many different countries, including a presentation of small moon rocks from the United States.

Luang Prabang-19Luang Prabang-42While in Luang Prabang, we had the chance to visit several well-kept Buddhist temples, Wat Souvanna Khiri, and the spectacular Wat Xiang Thong, the most well-known temple in the city. The temples were covered in gold leaf designs applied by hand, gilded relief carvings, and mirrored tile mosaics. They were truly spectacular to behold, but it gave us pause to think of the disparity between the lavish temples and the third of the country that lives on less than $1.25 per day.

Luang Prabang-17 Luang Prabang-21The interiors of the larger temples tend to feature a large image of either a seated or reclining Buddha surrounded by smaller sculptures of Buddha and his followers. Most of the temples also feature a statue of a particularly revered monk who practiced in that temple or city.

Luang Prabang-12 Luang Prabang-36 Luang Prabang-40Luang Prabang is home to an enticing night market where primarily tourists can sample Lao cuisine and handicrafts. Of particular interest were small aluminum trinkets and jewelry made of recycled bombshells.

Luang Prabang-2 Luang Prabang-4Despite its tumultuous history, the Lao people remain friendly and welcoming to all visitors. Luang Prabang is a city that’s used to tourists, so it’s hard to gauge the general feeling in other areas of the country. Laos is a country that’s rapidly developing, and still lacks much-needed physical infrastructure like highways and railways, particularly in rural areas. Still, it’s a country that appears to have a lot to offer and look forward to, especially as neighboring Thailand continues to grow.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Located roughly 30 kilometers from Luang Prabang, Laos, Kuang Si Falls has been one of the most incredible stops of our journey so far. From our hotel in Luang Prabang, a half hour van journey took us to the entrance to the waterfall grounds.

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The water at the Falls is incredibly clear, and gathers into pools of bright turquoise.

Kuang Si Falls-9The water, even on a rather hot day, is quite chilly. That didn’t stop crowds from swimming in the cascading series of pools, and we got our feet wet as well, although we opted not to jump from the top of a medium-sized fall into the pool below, as some did. It was very serene to sit on a log in the shallows and watch the water froth down into the pool we were in.

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It’s a touristy stop, but an incredibly worthwhile one. We’ve seen several waterfalls on this trip, and the series of falls and pools at Kuang Si were in a different class.

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Kuang Si Falls is also a well maintained, clean park. It was refreshing to see trash receptacles (a rarity for anywhere in Southeast Asia), and people using them. Park workers maintain the grounds nicely, and there are various signs asking visitors not to litter. There are also private changing booths for changing into and out of swimming suits, and picnic areas as well.

Kuang Si Falls-5Kuang Si Falls-2Kuang Si was a great way to spend a hot afternoon in Laos, and although we came prepared with plenty of SPF, the Falls are actually quite shady. The Falls are surrounded by a forest and the path alongside the pools is lined with trees as well. There is even a small mossy cave that we took the chance to explore.

Kuang Si Falls-7          As we headed back to the van, we passed the sun bear sanctuary near the exit. Unfortunately, the bears seemed to be in for the evening, but we were glad to see their enclosure was quite large and full of bear amusements. As we left the park, we stopped at a stand selling delicious iced Lao coffee and bought one for the ride back.




Vietnam is a tall, narrow, s-shaped country, and the climate varies quite a bit throughout. In the north, there are four separate seasons, while in the tropical south, the temperature by varies just three degrees year-round. Hanoi, being in northern Vietnam, was actually pretty chilly while we were visiting. The temperatures would reach a high in the low 60s or high 50s, but high humidity made this feel colder than it was.


Our hosts, Jeff and Kate Caster, were incredibly generous and fun to be with. We had a wonderful and entertaining two weeks spending time with them, making friends, indulging in red wine, and enjoying the best room of our trip in their beautiful French Colonial-style house.



The neighborhood where they live is known as Tay Ho, or West Lake, and we spent one of the days wandering around the rather large lake, stopping at numerous Bia Hois along the way to cut the cold with a crisp Saigon beer.



Walking around the streets and exploring on foot provided a nice glimpse of life in Vietnam’s capital city. We spent a few days taxying to different neighborhoods and then walking along narrow streets as the afternoon light turned golden.



Hanoi-29Traffic, even by the southeast Asian standards we’ve grown accustomed to, was rather insane. The philosophy here is to cross as quickly yet authoritatively as possible, and avoid the motorbikes!

Hanoi-17Bun Cha, a signature northern Vietnamese dish, was a Hanoi specialty that we enjoyed tremendously. It’s made up of chargrilled pork patties with a sweet-savory broth, white rice noodles, and fried spring rolls that are eaten wrapped in an enormous amount of crunchy mixed greens.

Hanoi-6The time we spent exploring Hanoi was delicious and relaxing, and the cloudy, cool, misty days provided a cozy change of pace from steamy Indonesia.


Gili Air

No cars or motorcycles, just humans and ponies. And cats, lots of cats, many born with stubby half-tails. Gili Air (which means “water island” in Indonesian) is the smallest of the Gili Islands, a group of idyllic little lumps of sand between Bali and Lombok, Indonesia.

Gili Air-20We were lucky enough to spend 16 days wandering around this miniature paradise. Being the rainy season, there were even fewer tourists on the island than usual. It also didn’t rain all day every day, and the rolling clouds provided frequent and much needed sun breaks for Jane’s skin.

Gili Air-32The days were spent relaxing, reading, snorkeling, and swimming. The water was the most improbable-looking shade of aquamarine, and a beautiful backdrop for the many schools of tropical fish darting around in their coral homes. We were also lucky enough to see a friendly sea turtle while snorkeling in shallow water, and we swam with it for a while as small fish nibbled bits of algae from its neck (unfortunately, photo unavailable). Also, aquatic ponies:

Gili Air-17Most nights were fairly cloudy, but the ones that weren’t provided some incredible views of a gorgeous full moon and more constallations than we’ve ever seen before.

Gili Air-3Gili Air was a gem of a place, and we had a great time getting to know our vacation-neighbors while eating a beachfront breakfast every morning. The day of Jane’s 26th birthday, we went to H2O Yoga for a luxurious hour and a half of open-air yoga and stretching, and had mango-dark chocolate ice cream cones for the walk back.Gili Air-39We finished up the day with a flower-covered cake from our friends at Star Bar, a strawberry daiquiri, and some hermit crab races courtesy of our 13-year-old neighbor Celeste. The next morning we headed out early for a few days on the island of Lombok before starting our journey to the city of Ha Noi, Vietnam.

Ubud on Foot and Bali by Bike

Our time in the small town of Ubud was relaxing and enjoyable. It’s small enough to go pretty much anywhere on foot, which is good, because there really aren’t any taxis (or taksis as they’re spelled in Indonesia) or public transportation. Desak Putu Putra Homestay was one of the nicest, friendliest, and most pleasant hotels we’ve ever stayed in. The closest American analogue to a homestay would be a bed and breakfast, and the breakfasts here were quite good. Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-1 Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-5

Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-24Just a few doors down from our homestay was a delicious restaurant where we ate almost all of our meals, Mama’s Warung. Mama and her staff were so welcoming, and the food was so good, that we ate all of our meals except breakfast there while we were in Ubud. Jeff especially loved the tuna satay, with extra spicy peanut sauce, please! Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-31   Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-2 While we were in Ubud, in addition to visiting the monkey forest and scaling Mount Batur, we also took a bicycle tour of Bali. There were several interesting stops along the way. We were very fortunate that our tour guide, Doty, spoke excellent English and was happy to answer all the questions we had about daily life in Bali. Before embarking on bicycles, the tour took us to a traditional coffee farm where coffee and other produce is grown and beans are roasted over an open fire before being processed using a tremendous mortar and pestle.

Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-8A unique kind of Indonesian coffee called Kopi Luwak is possibly the world’s most expensive coffee. The beans are gathered from the droppings of a small, catlike animal called a palm civet, and the digestion process supposedly lends a unique and spectacular flavor to the finished coffee. We tried a cup, and it tasted rather… bland. The palm civet, however, was quite cute.

Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-6Doty showed us a traditional Balinese home, which was laid out in the same way as our homestay, with a covered area in the center for ceremonies and family relaxation; a temple area where offerings are made for prosperity in life; a kitchen and dining building; a building with bedrooms for each family member; and a large garden full of greenery (and a cow). Doty told us that while most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali is 90% Hindu, although the Hinduism practiced here has nods to traditional animism as well.

The weather on the day of the tour was cloudy, with rain threatening all day. This is the rainy season in Indonesia, and rain can come quickly; scattered clouds can change to a monsoon-like downpour in a matter of minutes. Luckily, the only hard rain of the bike trip was while we were stopped admiring an extremely old and tremendous banyan tree. Its sprawling 500-year-old branches and large leaves were the perfect cover.

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Later on in the tour we stopped by a workshop where ornate door frames and doors were carved by hand. Each door can take a month to carve, depending on the complexity of the designs. It must take a tremendous amount of skill and patience…

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Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-20The tour wound 25 km through the hills of Bali and past countless shops, markets, homes, schools and rice paddies.

Ubud and Bali Cycling Tour-12Doty was a fantastic and informative guide, and the bike tour was a fun and energizing way to see quite a bit of the green, life-filled island of Bali.




Sunrise at Mount Batur

The morning after Jeff’s birthday, we awoke at 2:00 am to get ready for our pre-sunrise trek up Mount Batur, an active volcano about an hour’s drive from Ubud. Our guide picked us up from the hotel right on time at 2:30 am, and we made our way to the base camp, where we had a cup of Balinese coffee and got our flashlights ready for the pitch-dark climb. The trek started out fairly flat through the forest at the base of the mountain, but quickly turned steep as we got higher into the rocky cliffs. We were very glad to be the only two climbers with our guide, as we definitely needed some help navigating up the steep and sandy volcanic rocks. It was a long and difficult climb, and towards the end it was best just to take one step at a time and not think about how much further we had to go! We arrived at the peak of Mount Batur just as the sun was peeking through the clouds near Mount Agung, which lies to the east.

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Luckily, the view from the top turned out to be extremely worth our hard work, and we celebrated with a Sprite from a vendor who climbs Mount Batur every morning to sell his backpack full of sodas at the top.

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While we marveled at the view from every direction, our guide prepared us a scrumptious breakfast, including eggs cooked in volcanic steam, sweet buns, and a delicious fruit we’d never seen before called mangosteen. They’re the purple fruits next to the bananas.

Mount Batur Sunrise-20As the sun rose over the mountains and through the clouds we could see all of Bali bathed in golden light.

Mount Batur Sunrise-22We also saw a few more crab eating macaques at the peak.

Mount Batur Sunrise-25The descent back to the bottom was faster and less tiring but rather hard on the knees. It was a relief to make it back to flat ground.

Mount Batur Sunrise-27The rest of the day was spent in a state of disoriented relaxation, having scaled and descended a mountain before noon. An exhausting, incredibly beautiful day.