Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys!

Known for having some of the richest biodiversity in the world, Borneo did not disappoint when it came to seeing animals. If you are an animal person, you must try and make it to Borneo at some point. I have to admit I’ve never been crazy about wildlife and “nature,” but I loved seeing everything Borneo has to offer. Probably two of the most spectacular creatures we saw were the Bornean Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey. We were able to see the monkeys both in the wild while camping in the jungle, and at their respective sanctuaries. I will write about our time at Uncle Tan’s (the camp in the jungle) in another entry, so I’ll just share some pictures and stories from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary for now.

Borneo is filled with miles and miles of rainforest home to thousands of different species of animals, plants and trees. Unfortunately, the rainforest has become subject to deforestation and as a result, many animals have been left injured and without homes. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary was founded in 1964 to help orphaned and injured Orangutans return to life in the forest. They go through a training program where they slowly learn how to become independent in the wild. Visitors are invited to sit in on feeding sessions that last for about 45 minutes to an hour. Mostly mom and baby Orangutans come to a central platform where the food is distributed.

It was great to see the Orangutans up close, but the large number of tourists and constant flashing of cameras kind of took away from the authenticity of the experience. The Orangutans are definitely in a more natural habitat than at a zoo, but you still got the feeling you were in a man made exhibit. Regardless, the Orangutans were adorable and we got to see them up close!

Group picture at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

Mom and baby Orangutan heading to the feeding platform.

Baby Orangutan swinging to the feeding platform.

Orangutans at the feeding platform.

After climbing the mountain and spending 3 days at Uncle Tan’s, Blue, Paul, Richard and I decided to just hang out for a couple days and do something relaxing. We read about a resort located five minutes from the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and decided to spend a night there. The resort and Sanctuary are about an hour drive from Sandakan, the closest major town. There isn’t much to do in the area, but we were quite happy to check out the monkeys, sit in hammocks and play cards for a day.

Since Labuk Bay is kind of far from any major town there were substantially less tourists at the Sanctuary. The grounds were also much bigger than at the Orangutan Sanctuary and it felt much more like the monkeys were actually living in the wild. When we arrived for the feeding there were only a handful of other tourists and way more monkeys than we had seen in Sepilok. When the food was brought to the feeding station all of the monkeys came swinging in at the same time to get their share of the food.The Proboscis Monkeys are unlike any animal you have ever seen before. Their most distinctive feature is their long and flat nose and the males have red penises that are always erect. Their mannerisms are also very similar to human mannerisms. Watching them eat was kind of like watching a really weird looking human eat. Proboscis Monkeys only live on the island of Borneo, so if you want to see one plan a trip to Borneo!

Nippah Lodge - The resort we stayed at which is about 5 minutes away from Labuk Bay

Proboscis Monkey in a tree

At the feeding station.

Close up!

The back of a Proboscis Monkey...their hair patterns are so strange!

There were also some silver leafed monkeys at Labuk Bay.

These monkeys came straight up to our platform. Here they are with Richard!


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Hiking Mt.Kinabalu

This month I had the opportunity to visit Borneo, the third largest island in the world. It is divided into three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Along with Annie, Alexis, Paul, Richard and Blue, I made my way around the Malaysian state Sabah, located on the northern portion of the island. We spent a little less than 2 weeks on the island, but we were able to climb the highest mountain in SE  Asia, see a plethora of wildlife in its natural habitat along the Kinabatangan River, visit Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey Sanctuaries, go white water rafting, camp in the jungle and relax on a beach off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. This entry is dedicated to the hike up Mt.Kinabalu, but there is much more to share about Borneo so more entries will hopefully be on the way in a timely fashion!

So Mount Kinabalu. This is what I knew about it before we started the 2 day 1 night hike. It’s the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, it’s the 20th highest mountain in the world, the summit reaches 4,095 meters, anyone in decent physical condition can climb, it gets cold at the top, some people get altitude sickness. I also knew that maybe five years ago the hike would be no big deal, but now I am older and out of shape so I was a bit worried. However, I wasn’t worried enough to get my butt into gear and train for the hike like I should have. In proper procrastination mode, I waited until the week before vacation to start going to the gym where I walked with the tredmill on an incline for an hour a day. Unless you are in decent shape, that is not enough. It’s enough to get you up the mountain, but not without your fair share of pain and turmoil.

But let’s start at the beginning. Day 1. We spent the night before at an adorable hostel down the road from Kinabalu National Park, so all we had to do was roll out of bed at 6:30am and walk ten minutes to the Park Headquarters. By the time we found our guide, sorted out paperwork, collected our lunches, and arrived at Timpohon Gate (the start of the hike), it was about 9am. I was extremely nervous all morning, but it did calm my nerves to see a rather large group of 60+ year old Asian tourists also doing the hike. When we got to Timpohon Gate our guide, Azuwan, informed us of the route we’d be following. The first day we’d climb about 6km and then spend the night at Laban Rata Guesthouse located at 3,270 meters. We’d then wake up at 2am the next morning and finish the last 2.6km in order to make it to the summit by sunrise. I knew I would be the slowest one in my group, so I planned to go at my own pace and I would eventually make it to the top.

The first day was basically what I expected. 6km is not far, but I’d say about 75-80% of it is climbing up stairs so unless you are in good shape, it’s no walk in the park. Even after the first 2km I could feel my legs burning, and my cardio is pretty weak so I needed to rest every couple hundred meters to catch my breath. But I made it to the rest stop by about 1:30pm, which is making pretty decent time. We rested during the afternoon and then around 5pm went to the dining hall at Laban Rata to restore our energy with an all you can eat dinner buffet. After a couple plates of food and a few games of cards, we retired to our room and were in bed with lights out by about 7:30pm. Even though I was exhausted, I found it really hard to sleep and spent most of the night tossing and turning. By the time I actually fell asleep, our alarm clock was going off and it was time to finish the hike. While I had a pretty good idea of what day 1 was going to be like, I had no clue what was in store for the last 2.6 km.

It was a pretty strange sensation waking up that early and heading to the dining hall with a couple hundred other people who are also half asleep and bundled up in coats, hats, scarves and gloves. After a couple slices of toast we headed off for the final part of the hike. There are no lights along the path so you absolutely need your own flashlight to see where you are going. It’s also so dark that it’s impossible to see where the path is taking you. All you can see is the light from the people ahead of you and the light from the people behind you. The last 2.6km were definitely the hardest part of the hike for me. I was tired, my legs were already sore, altitude sickness started to kick in and it was really cold. Technically, it’s also the most difficult part of the hike because there are several parts where it’s so steep that you needed to hoist yourself up with a rope. Luckily, Blue stayed back with me and was there encouraging me to keep going even though every part of my body wanted me to stop and turn around.

In hindsight, me being so slow was actually kind of a good thing. We started hiking at 2:30am and made it to the summit at 6:30am, just as the sun was rising. It’s fortunate we didn’t get there much sooner because once you reach the top you just have to wait for the sun to rise and once you stop moving it gets real cold real fast. Blue and I met Paul, Annie and Alexis at the summit to snap a few photos and then immediately headed back down the mountain because we were freezing. Walking down those 2.6km was probably the best part of the hike. On our way up we weren’t able to see anything around us so it was really amazing to see everything come into view on our way down. The views were truly spectacular and made all of the pain going up the mountain totally worth it.

We reached Laban Rata again at around 8:30am and filled up on a breakfast buffet before making our final descent. Cardio wise, going down was no big deal. But my legs were already aching from the day before and walking down stairs puts a lot more pressure on your legs than walking up does. However, even with sore legs and weak knees, walking down proved to be infinitely times easier for me than going up. It’s crazy to think that porters and guides hike the mountain every single day. I don’t know how they do it!

For the next few days it was extremely difficult for all of us to walk up and down stairs, but that is no reason to not hike Mt.Kinabalu. If you are thinking of visiting Borneo and hiking the mountain, feel free to ask me any questions. Anyone traveling around Borneo should make an effort to do it! Maybe these pictures will make you want to!

Mt.Kinabalu Summit Trail

Stairs, stairs and more stairs to climb.

Laban Rata Guesthouse

Sunrise at the summit of Mt.Kinabalu - amazing!

Mt.Kinabalu Summit

Blue and I at the summit

View of Sabah from the top of the mountain.

View of the summit from the last checkpoint - about 1.6 meters away from the top.

Rapelling down the mountain. These parts were actually super dangerous and I can't believe we did all of it in pitch black on the way up!

Finished! Picture with our (my) guide, Azuwan.

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Bac Ha Market

Every Sunday, throngs of people travel to Bac Ha for the Bac Ha Sunday Market. Tourists travel by bus from Sapa and Lao Cai, and locals arrive by motorbike, truck, bicycle and even foot. Some wake up before the sun rises and spend hours traveling to the market. It not only serves as a giant hub for trade and commerce, but it is also a major social event. The women spend all morning together either selling or buying goods for the week, and the men crowd together at small tables eating intestine soup and getting sloppy off of local rice wine. It’s crowded, loud, hot, hectic and smelly- just like every good market should be!

Bac Ha has your usual selection of produce, home goods and souvenirs, but it also has a huge variety of live animals! Birds, ducks, dogs, water buffalo and more are all in high abundance. You can spend a couple bucks on a carton of chickens, or drop over a thousand dollars on a water buffalo. As cool as this all sounds, Bac Ha is not for the faint hearted. The atmosphere is quite intense and a walk through the raw meat section can have even the biggest meat eaters contemplating vegetarianism. But if you are making the trip all the way up to Sapa, it would be a shame to miss the Bac Ha Market. It gives you a great lens to see into the lives of the minority people in the north, and there is a lot of great shopping…my parents and I went a little crazy picking out gifts and souvenirs! You can write about it all you want, but you’ll only get the real feel of the place by going there. Pictures will give you an idea, but definitely won’t do it justice. But it’s worth a try, right? Enjoy!

Got Chilis?

Raw meat for sale - this definitely looks sanitary....

Blood Sausage and Meat ready to eat - look appetizing to you?


Men eating and drinking - they probably start around 9am in the morning too!


Flower Hmong women selling rice wine.


Water Buffalo for sale at the Bac Ha Market - people can spend years saving up for one of these.


A selection of knives and tools.


Piles of shoes!


Trinkets and gifts


Table Runners and Wall Hangings

One last word of advice if you are heading to Bac Ha Market: everyone is going to try to rip you off! Don’t be fooled,  you can usually bargain your way down to half of the starting price. Sometimes half of the fun shopping at these markets is seeing what kind of deals you can get!

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Trekking in Sapa

After Angkor Wat, my parents and I headed to our next destination: Sapa. Located in northwest Vietnam, Sapa is a mountain town and is one of the only regions in Vietnam that has distinct seasons. It actually gets cold during the winter! With a population of approximately 36,000, the area is home to a number of ethnic minority groups. The Hmong are the largest miniority group in Sapa and make up a little over half of the population. In addition to the Hmong, there are four other minority groups that reside in Sapa (spellings vary): the Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho people.

Sapa is located in Northwest Vietnam, very close to the Chinese border.

Most of the minority groups work in the mountains growing rice and corn.  In addition to farming, the minority groups in Sapa make money by selling homemade products such as clothing, jewelery, bags, fabrics, etc to tourists. As soon as you step off the bus, you are immediately surrounded by swarms of women trying to sell you things. It was definitely a little overwhelming having people constantly trying to talk to you and sell you things, but it’s important to remember that they are just trying to make a living. However, even though begging and selling to tourists is so prominent, our tour guide explained to us that we shouldn’t buy from any of the children. By giving them money, it is only encouraging them to beg more instead of spending their time studying at school.

So the actual town of Sapa is a little hectic. Like I mentioned, you can’t walk down the street without being approached by groups of minority women. It has also become a pretty developed tourist hub, so the town is lined with hotels and restaurants that cater toward foreigners. Although the view from town is nice, Sapa is best enjoyed by trekking through the rice fields. Along with a guide, my parents and I completed a 12K trek through rice fields and the Hmong and Dao villages. Our guide took us on less traveled routes and we completed our trek without running into any other tour groups. We were able to see how the rice is grown and learned about the everyday lives of the minority peoples. The trek also provided stunning views of the mountainside in Sapa.

My father eating breakfast at our hotel

About 30 min into the trek, we made it out of the town of Sapa and entered the rice fields.

A water buffalo plowing the rice fields

Overlooking a Hmong village

View of the mountainside from a minority village

Close up of the rice fields

The "postcard" view of Sapa.

The only downside about Sapa is it’s a little inconvienent to get to. You have to take a 10 hour train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then from Lao Cai it’s another 1 hr 30 min busride to get to Sapa. However, most people take the night train from Hanoi so you don’t actually lose much time traveling. There is public transportation that you can take from Lao Cai to Sapa, but honestly I think it’s worth it to pay the extra money and plan ahead of time for a private bus or van. For a few extra dollars, I think it’s definitely worth it.

The next entry will be about the Bac Ha Market which is a 3hr drive from Sapa. Crazy things for sale!!!

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Angkor Wat – Revisited

Hello dear readers! It has been quite some time since I last updated this blog, but have no fear, I am back! June was a very crazy, special, busy, beautiful, tiring and eye-opening month. First, my parents came to visit for two weeks and we headed to Siem Reap, Hanoi and Sapa. Less than a week after they left, five of my girlfriends from Wesleyan came for a 2 and a half week visit. We visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Bangkok, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket. A lot to see in just one month! Definitely too much to fit into one blog entry, so it’s going to take a few entries to fit everything in. I will start with Siem Reap, the first stop on the trip I did with my parents.

“There’s no place else in the world that looks even remotely like Cambodia. You wake up, you always know where you are.” – Anthony Bourdain, March 8th, 2011 via Twitter.

Cambodia is a magical place. I visited twice in the fall of 2010, so I was very excited to go back and have my parents experience it. Tourists visit Siem Reap to see the various ruins of the Khmer Empire, which achieved great power and success between the 9th and 15th centuries. Many refer to the site as “Angkor Wat” because “Angkor” is the name of the area where the Khmer Empire held power, and the most famous temple in the complex is called Angkor Wat (the world’s largest single religious monument).

The trip with my parents was very different from the previous trip I made to Siem Reap. Instead of doing a 6 hour whirlwind tour of the main temples in the complex like I did last fall, we really took our time and visited a bunch of sites that most tourists don’t visit. We also woke up at 4:30am every morning to arrive at the complex by sunrise. Although I wanted to kill my father at the time, who insisted that we must be there at sunrise to take advantage of the lighting, getting an early start turned out to be a great thing. We avoided the massive tour group crowds which start their tours around 10am. One morning we had Ta Prohm, the place where they filmed Tomb Raider, literally all to ourselves. Waking up early also allows you to beat the intense heat which starts late morning and continues through the afternoon. I definitely recommend seeing the temples first thing, so worth waking up at 4 in the morning!

Angkor Wat. It wasn't the best sunrise, but it was still beautiful.

Entrance to Ta Prohm

Inside Ta Prohm

Photo Frames at Ta Keo

Watching the sunrise at Sras Srang Lake. My parents and I were 3 out of the 5 people there. It was so peaceful!

Preah Khan. In 1191, Jayavarman VII dedicatd this temple to his father. It's not one of the main attractions in Angkor Wat, but the temple is massive and there is a lot to explore. At the exit of the temple there is a beautiful lotus pond. Definitely worth seeing!

Wat Prasat Bakong, a short ride away from the main complex.

If you are interested in seeing more pictures of Angkor Wat, let me know. I took close to 500 photos when I was there! My next entry will be about our trek in Sapa. Stay tuned!

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Love Letter From A Student


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The Big Cheese

After months of talking about it, Allison, Mike and I finally went to Blackcat to take down “The Big Cheese.” For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, “The Big Cheese” is a 500 gram patty, four slices of cheese, six slices of bacon, three tomatoes, one onion, one head of butter lettuce and one pickle served on a jumbo toasted sesame seed bun for a total of 1.5 kilos! We had really psyched ourselves up for the challenge and I have to admit we were a little disappointed with how easy it was. We finished the burger in less than 10 minutes, ordered a plate of french fries, and even after that were still kind of hungry. Three people eating “The Big Cheese” isn’t so hard, so maybe if we are up for it sometime we’ll tackle the burger in pairs.

Even though the burger didn’t live up to our expectations (I think we were hoping it was going to be something like Man vs. Food), it tasted damn good. I think that Blackcat has the best burgers in all of Saigon and “The Big Cheese” did not disappoint. In addition to having great burgers, Blackcat makes really good Mexican food. So if you are in Saigon and craving some Western food, Blackcat is a place you must check out!

My portion of "The Big Cheese"

Allison with the burger

Mike with the burger

Me with the burger

All done! No big deal!

Blackcat is located at 13 Phan Van Dat, District 1.

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Scenes from Nha Trang

Nha Trang is so beautiful that I can’t resist posting some of my favorite photos from the trip. For those of you in Saigon, it’s only a $10 bus ride away and if you take the night bus it’s totally possible to visit Nha Trang over a long weekend. This is the perfect place to take a beach vacation on a budget.

For about $1.50 you can rent one of these beach chairs at the Louisiane Brewhouse for an entire day. The area is clean and waiters will bring food and cold drinks to your seats. A 330ml glass of freshly brewed beer costs you $1.50.

For $18 you can parasail along the main strip of beach in Nha Trang. That is actually me and my friend Greg!

View of Nha Trang from the Cham Towers (only a 10 minute drive away from the center of town).

For just $5 a day, you can rent a motorbike and drive along the coast of Nha Trang. The roads aren't very crowded and you get a great view of all the islands around Nha Trang.

You also pass a bunch of fishing villages as you cruise around.

For $18 you can take a 6 hour boat/snorkling tour around the surrounding islands of Nha Trang. Snorkling gear, lunch and a guide are all provided.

Who knew water this clear existed in Vietnam? Perfect for snorkling!

In addition, lodging in the backpackers district is no more than $10 a night per person, making a trip to Nha Trang very affordable. Think about how much a vacation like this would cost in a place like Hawaii! I can’t wait to go back!

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Nem Nướng in Nha Trang

Located on the South Central Coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang is the beach capital of Vietnam. I spent 4 days and 3 nights there this past weekend during a national holiday that coincided with my 23rd birthday. The weather was perfect and we spent the weekend lounging at the beach, snorkling, parasailing, driving around the coast, and checking out a few bars and nightclubs. To read more about what we did in Nha Trang take a look at Mike’s entry entitled “Paradise City” or check out my facebook photos. But given my obsession with food, I’m going to write about one of my favorite eating experiences in Nha Trang. For breakfast one day a couple of us strayed away from the Louisiane Brewhouse, where we ate about half our meals, and headed away from the backpackers district and into the center of town. Aside from seafood, we were informed that any visit to Nha Trang would not be complete without trying a local specialty: Nem Nướng. Before this trip I had never heard of Nem Nướng, so I was really excited to try out a new Vietnamese dish. Nem Nướng is pork grilled on skewers. Before the meat is grilled it is usually marinated in a sauce with red food coloring to give it a nice look once it is grilled. At the restaurant we went to, the Nem Nướng was served with strips of fried rice paper, pickled vegetables and your usual plate of lettuce, mint, scallions, basil, etc. We were then given pieces of raw rice paper and it was our job to actually assemble the spring rolls ourselves.

Nem Nướng - Grilled Pork

Fried Rice Paper

Everything ready to be assembled

Rice Paper

Almost ready to eat!

Nem Nướng rolled and ready to eat

A delicious sauce that you dip your rolls in

I was a big fan of the dish and now want to find a place in Saigon where I can get Nem Nướng. The fried rice paper is really crunchy and it is a perfect contrast to the soft meat. It’s also fun to make your own rolls because you can put in all your favorite ingredients. If you are in Nha Trang definitely try it out. There are a bunch of different Nem Nướng restaurants you can choose from there. We went to one located at 17 Le Loi and I would definitely recommend it. For those of you based in Saigon, when I find a place here with good Nem Nướng I’ll let you know where it is!

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Miến Gà: Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

Even though it gets really hot in Vietnam, people love soup here. Various types of soup noodles are usually served as a breakfast dish, but there are plenty of soup places that are open for lunch, dinner and late night snacks. When I first got to Vietnam I wrote an entry about the most popular and well known soup dish in Vietnam: pho. And while pho is delicious, we shouldn’t forget about other types of soup noodles that exist in Vietnam. I hope to introduce you guys to numerous noodle soups on this blog, and we will start with one of my favorites: miến gà.

Miến Gà (Miến means glass noodles and means chicken) is the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. Glass noodles are also sometimes referred to as cellophane noodles because once they are cooked, they resemble cellophane. The noodles are made from a plant called Canna, which is one of the worlds richest starch sources.

Canna Plant

Miến Gà is made with a chicken based broth and is usually served with noodles, chicken, scallions, bean sprouts and onions.  There is a soup shop about 5 minutes from my house that I get my Miến Gà from. In addition to Miến Gà they make pho and other types of noodle soups.  The service there is really fast and I often go there on the weekends after my morning classes so I can eat a quick lunch and then take a nap before my afternoon/night classes. In addition, the place is usually packed with locals so that’s always a good sign. A bowl of Miến Gà is 24,000 VND (a little over $1). Grab a bowl the next time you are on Ky Dong Street.

I don't know the actual name....I just call it the soup noodle place

Seating area

Miến Gà

Glass noodles aka cellophane noodles

The Noodle Soup Place is located at 14/5 bis Ky Dong. Right across from the Vietcombank down the 14 Ky Dong alley.

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