Southeast Asia Summary

This post is mostly to share some photos that didn’t fit in along the way, plus a few overall thoughts from our four months in Southeast Asia. We came nowhere close to seeing everything this region has to offer, but I think we’ll be back – we found traveling here to be easy, very affordable, and best of all, consistently amazing!


We spent 122 days traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia:

map of our wanderings (the numbers don’t indicate anything beyond chronology)

This means that we only saw half of the countries in this area at all – we didn’t see Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, or (aside from a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur) Malaysia. These are all places that – based on other travelers we spoke with – have a lot to offer, we just didn’t make it there.




A Random List of Stats

Hottest temp: 40C+ Hue, Vietnam
Best bananas: Angkor, Cambodia
Worst food poisoning: Kampot, Cambodia
Bumpiest bus ride: Mui Ne to Dalat, Vietnam
Most repeat meals: Mama’s Chicken Shack, Tonsai, Thailand
Best kebab: Sinbad’s, Mui Ne, Vietnam
Best place to pet cats: Tonsai Beach, Thailand

# of flipflops blown: 5. Once the first pair goes, you’re screwed: all the ones here are terrible.

# pairs of sunglasses: 5. Scratched, crushed between my head and something, lost overboard, and just generally low quality.


Best sunset: Railay Beach, Thailand. (Gili Air, Indonesia, in close second.)
Most ants:
Bakong, Cambodia

Worst accommodation: Cat Ba, Vietnam

Best diving: Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Best coffee: Hanoi, Vietnam
Worst internet availability: Sulawesi, Indonesia
Best hike: Gunang Lokon, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Best oranges: Hanoi, Vietnam


weirdest meal: Krabi, Thailand
best street noodles: Nguyễn Trung Ngạn Alley, Saigon, Vietnam


What We Were Nervous (and Wrong) About

We’d never been to this part of the world and so we had a few things that made us a bit anxious beforehand, ranging from the somewhat reasonable to the rather ridiculous.

Communication: a wide range of completely new tongues – some unreadable to boot – plus reportedly little English had us wondering how difficult it would be for us to get by day to day. This turned out to be a complete non-issue. Southeast Asia is full of polyglots, many of them learning some English in school along with multiple local languages, making it embarrassingly easy to communicate. The few phrases and words we learned came less out of necessity and more to at least show we were trying. In the cases where we were far enough out of the way as to run out of English speakers, gesturing worked fine with the friendly and patient locals.


Crowds: picturing Asian cities brings to mind street food, pollution, and… dense crowds. Would it be nerve-wracking? Nope. Granted, there may be times and places where the crowds really are something else (festivals, etc) but otherwise it’s just like any other busy city. We’ve been in tighter (and smellier) quarters packed in the Paris Metro than we were anywhere in Kowloon or Bangkok.


Beds: maybe edging toward the sillier side, but we both have had lower back issues off and on and I was worried that the reputably rock-hard beds would be problematic. Yes, we encountered many hard beds, but fortunately it’s been fine!

Buddha is OK with the hard beds… Bangkok, Thailand

Height: you can laugh at this one but I’m 6’2″ (188cm) – significantly taller than your average Southeast Asian. How many times would I hit my head? Results are in: a lot. The temples of Angkor in particular were a hotspot of head bumps. Ah well, I survived!

nope, not my head, though it felt like it sometimes. This ones’s from the history museum in Saigon

Safety: reading about others’ travels it’s easy to get concerned about scams, theft, or worse. It turns out Southeast Asia is just like anywhere else in the world and these are only issues if you are dumb or drunk or perhaps exceptionally unlucky. Common sense prevailed and we had no issues!

Hue, Vietnam

Health and Food: we were really excited about touring through Southeast Asian cuisine, but also apprehensive: would it be sanitary, or would we get sick all the time? Would everything be insanely spicy? Again, these were pretty much unfounded fears. There were occasional bouts of discomfort and one real food poisoning (I pushed my luck at an idle Cambodian street cart) but overall no more problems than on any overseas travel. As for spiciness we only had a handful of times when we weren’t given a choice or warning ahead of time. Again, common sense (and some Pepto) goes a long way.

rice: get used to it

The Top Highlights

Exploring the temples of Angkor: climbing around on thousand-year-old ruins, dozens of sites each with unique things to see, and a crash course in local history and art along with it. This is a special place.


Diving in Komodo National Park: our Southeast Asia travel happily led to us discovering scuba diving as a new passion for both of us. The grandeur and excitement of this amazing location combined with us learning a ton made this one of the best things we’ve ever done, period.


Caving in Phong Nha: swimming through granite and limestone tunnels underground, combined with enjoying the gorgeous natural scenery above, made this a really unique and fun destination.


Eating our way through Vietnam: we really liked Vietnam. The culture and people, the value of accommodation, and of course the food. All the stuff you know already (pho, spring rolls, bahn mi, bun thit nuong) and plenty that was new (bun cha, egg coffee, mi quang, grilled squid…) – it’s all amazing. Even the basic stuff – fruit, peanuts, eggs – were fabulous. Saigon, Hoi An, and Hanoi were tops for food.

Hoi An, Vietnam: good food, and pretty too

It’s not really fair to only list a few top items, though. So much was amazing, with nearly every day bringing us something new and beautiful!

Chiang Mai, Thailand



A Quick Country Comparison

We were surprised by how unique each country and region of Southeast Asia is. Even a short border crossing on the mainland brings a whole new world to explore. The differences felt much more pronounced to us than traveling between nations in Europe or Latin America (though perhaps this is partly due to the newness of everything Asian to us!).

Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Thailand: as advertised – approachable, fun, and tasty. This was a good country to start with because it’s so easy to travel as an English-speaking foreigner. Some areas were certainly heavily touristed but we never felt too far from the local culture and food scene. There’s something for everyone here with beaches and karst, jungle and hills, temples and markets, and the most varied (and cheap) street food.

Chiang Mai

Cambodia: we had some highlights in Cambodia – especially Angkor – but overall this was our least favorite country to visit. We found it to be quite dirty and relatively unremarkable, with good food hard to come by. Phnom Penh was our least favorite city in S.E. Asia for the same reasons. We certainly can’t hold it against them – the Khmer have been through some seriously hard times in recent history! We don’t regret visiting at all but I don’t think we’ll be hurrying back.

Angkor Wat

Vietnam: our favorite. There’s rich culture and history, beautiful mountains and coastline, and for the most part excellent and varied food. The people are friendly and hard working, the streets largely clean, and the value for accommodation was the best we found. Getting around the country is easy with a good network of buses and cheap flights. It wasn’t all perfect, of course: some places just didn’t work for us (namely, Cat Ba), others were mobbed by hordes of Chinese tourists, and the summer heat could be overwhelming especially as we got further north. Overall, however, Vietnam won a special place in our hearts.

Hoi An

Indonesia: is huge, scattered, and hard to travel efficiently. I think it would have taken something like six months before we could say we saw as much of Indonesia as we did with one month in Vietnam. So there is much of the country that we did not visit and therefore can’t describe – nearly four weeks on Sulawesi alone covered only some of that one island! Indonesia was our longest stint at two months but this was due to our new infatuation with scuba diving. If it weren’t for the numerous incredible sites for this activity I think the repetitive food and challenging logistics would have worn thin sooner. But we were off the beaten track for a while – if you don’t mind having a lot of tourists around, Bali seems like a great cheap destination. Overall: I expect we’ll be back for some more diving – and when we do, we’ll be more than ready to dig into more nasi campur and ayam taliwang!

Senggigi, Lombok

What’s Awesome About Southeast Asia

In our opinion, of course!

Travel value – doing anything and everything here is so much less expensive than in most other places on our planet. Bargains for food, lodging, and transport are everywhere, and even bigger costs like diving are cheaper. Sure, you can pay a lot to visit Southeast Asia – stay in plush hotels catering to Westerners, book glossy packages, and eat and drink the food you’re used to rather than local fare. But then you’re not only paying way more than you need to, you’re missing out on so much of what makes traveling fun!


Street food – okay, maybe stating the obvious here, but it’s nearly everywhere in one form or another, often delicious, always cheap, and a good bet for a pleasant surprise (or at least a learning experience). The indicator for good street food is ubiquitous across S.E. Asia: tiny plastic stools in the road or sidewalk packed with locals.

at a street soup vendor in Chinatown, Bangkok
can’t remember the name, but delicious… Saigon, Vietnam

Fruit – the fruit in S.E. Asia is insanely good. Not only is there huge variety and plenty you’ve never seen before, but even the ‘normal’ stuff (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, etc) is so much better than you can get in the States. Back home I rarely like mangoes and can’t stand papaya, but in Thailand I was eating them every day!

jackfruit and temple in Hue, Vietnam

Markets – are fun concentrations of people, color, sights and smells. Temporary street markets take over long stretches of streets to entertain tourists and locals alike while covered daily markets show you the local specialties and personalities (as long as you don’t mind walking through fishy wet floors). Not all markets are equal but most are worth checking out and many are quite a lot of fun!

fried fish at a market in Thailand

Tropical coasts – so much incredible coastline and blue water (where it isn’t marred by plastic garbage). I don’t really like jungles with the heat and humidity – I prefer being high up in the mountains, which isn’t really a thing here – but I also like being on the ocean. Indonesia takes the win here but Thailand and Vietnam also have great waterfront.

Gili Air, Indonesia

Outdoor activities – we kayaked, rock climbed, snorkeled and scuba dived, hiked, and mountain biked, and that’s only a subset of the really affordable activities available in S.E. Asia. Now of course there are some outdoor things that aren’t easy – even just walking from A to B can be a pain as sidewalks are often nonexistent or full of scooters or holes! Also, most of these activities aren’t “normal” for the local culture so it can be a bit convoluted sometimes to actually find a hiking trail, equipment, or map.

Cat Ba, Vietnam

Temples – Buddhism and Hinduism means lots of eye-catching sites to visit that really aren’t like anything you can find in the Western world. They’re beautiful and peaceful, ornate yet often simple. More often than not there’s at least one nearby that’s worth visiting.

Hue, Vietnam

Bummer! The Not So Great

Plastic, plastic, plastic – bottles, bags, containers, it’s everywhere and has nowhere good to go so it ends up in the ocean. It’s really sad to see a gorgeous beach marred by garbage dunes or to watch plastic bags drift by while diving a beautiful reef. The worst part is it’s hard to avoid being part of the problem, because:

Drinking water – is hard to find outside of the aforementioned plastic bottles. Some places are better than others – Bangkok has a bunch of reverse-osmosis dispensers around the city that cost next to nothing – and sometimes we’ve been able to filter tap water. But a lot of times we’ve had to buy water and unfortunately it’s a lot easier to find small bottles than bigger, more efficient ones.


Native wildlife – hoping to see that local furry or feathered critter? Good luck, it’s most likely been eaten or deforested pretty much out of existence. Thinking about conservation isn’t really part of the culture here. Unless there’s money to  be made from it, but that doesn’t always get the best result: feeding animals to attract them to certain locations, elephant ‘sanctuaries’ with questionable practices, or that one tree in the park where the guides bring everyone to see the same tarsier family (I think 90% of the amateur photos out there must be the same tarsier).


What Would We Do Next Time?

After talking to travelers and expats along the way there are a few specific things that we would really like to come back to Southeast Asia for, in addition to revisiting some of our favorites.

Diving in Raja Ampat: this is by all accounts an amazing place to dive in Indonesia, but it’s both far out of the way and relatively expensive. A liveaboard trip here would be fantastic I’m sure.

Exploring the Philippines: we elected to skip the Philippines this time due to the political climate, but we’d both really like to go. It sounds unique, beautiful, and fun. In particular I would like to dive some of the many WWII wrecks among the islands and bays.

Malaysian Borneo: we were actually very close to going here for the combination of hiking and diving. A last minute decision to hop over to Japan for a few weeks preempted this but we’re keeping it in mind for next time!

Mui Ne, Vietnam
Lombok, Indonesia
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hue, Vietnam
Sulawesi, Indonesia

Kuala Lumpur – Has Nothing to Do With Koalas

We had to buy tickets out of Indonesia in order to extend our Visa there, so we just booked the cheapest flight possible (to Kuala Lumpur) and figured we would sort out our future itinerary later. We have a hiking trip in Nepal booked at the end of September so had a solid 4 weeks to fill until that event. What to do! Discussing our plans while in Bali, we had pretty much decided to travel around Malaysia and then up through a bit of Thailand, but then we harnessed the power of the internet (the force was strong in Bali) and got to clicking around and found some good flights to Japan! So instead of being a jumping-off point for more SE Asia travel, Kuala Lumpur became a stopover. Kuala Lumpur (KL for short) was welcome break from the gaping-hole sidewalks, barrage of taksi (taxi) drivers and general disarray that is Indonesia.



We arrived in Kuala Lampur and took an Uber to our Airbnb in the Golden Triangle part of town. Although it was only a 3 hour flight from Bali, this trip took over 10 hours to complete and we were wiped. However, the Airbnb was great and our cheerleader of a hostess made the end of our journey easy. Later in our stay Shin, our hostess, also arranged for us to go out to dinner with her friends at a place outside of town. In our experience if we can get a local to order for us it always turns out better than we could do. Shin ordered some great dishes especially this whole roasted fish that was delicious.

Dinner with Shin and friends!

Our first day in KL we started with a luxurious breakfast (pig bacon!) and walked to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park on real sidewalks, a novelty after the gaping holes in the road of Indonesia. This is the largest free-flight bird park in the world and there was no shortage of bird life in every direction. Fortunately we did not get pooped on and saw some really interesting birds.



Totally enamored with being able to simultaneously walk in a straight line and not fall in a sewer we proceeded to walk to the Islamic Arts Museum where we rounded the building and entered on a side door. We found out as we were exiting the museum that it was in fact not supposed to be free and we inadvertently snuck in. Oops! We did have a Shakshuka (a very good one!) at the cafe which we reasoned mitigated our proscribed blunder.

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

If you like swords (Gregor) stay on the 2nd floor, if you like textiles and furniture (Elaine) stay on the 3rd. A very good museum and the building was beautiful also. There was also a very in-depth special exhibit on bookbinding. Before the exhibit I thought I had a pretty good handle on what it takes to bind a book, after the exhibit I think I have a pretty good handle on what it takes to bind a book.

Swords. Or, if you’re on Celebrity Jeopardy, “S” words.

Another main area of KL is Chinatown. With all these well renowned Chinatowns we get to go to I guess we can skip China, wahoo! Hungry, we plopped ourselves down on the ubiquitous plastic stools and waited for someone to take pity on us and feed us. Someone did and brought us over some Laksa (curry-like soup) with noodles which was really good and not rice so, really really good. We observed some local wildlife foraging as we exited (rats) and headed back to our place for a break.

Laksa, most of this is vegetarian we think.

Kuala Lumpur is supposed to have a great Indian part of town and we love Indian food so that night we went to the Wednesday night Indian market which was entertaining but did not actually have any Indian food. We had promised ourselves great Indian food and managed to find a street of Indian restaurants nearby and picked a busy one to try. That is the end of the story, it wasn’t that great.

Moving right along! The next day we did this cool skywalk which has some bridges that seemed pretty structurally sound, took some pictures of that big tower building thing and had cocktails at the famous Heli bar. I will say that we really somewhat reluctantly went to Heli Bar as we’ve been to a few rooftop bars that are overpriced and not great, but we actually enjoyed Heli Bar! Oh yes, there are no railings, though,  so if you like your children don’t bring them up there.

View from the top of Heli Bar
Watch out for the edge!

Next stop, Japan! Thanks for reading.

Feasting in Ubud, Bali

The busy inland town of Ubud on Bali is a striking contrast from the more remote areas of Indonesia where we had been traveling for the past several weeks, and much of the change was welcome after being off the beaten trail for a while. There may be hordes of tourists and higher prices, but with this comes a cornucopia of delicious (and often healthy) foods which we were more than ready to sample. Throw in peaceful and comfortable accommodation, clean and solid (by Indonesian standards) sidewalks, and a pleasant absence of the smokiness that pervades the air on Sulawesi, Flores, and Lombok, and you’ve got a good place for us travelers to rest and recharge. I think we did well to make Ubud the wrap up, rather than introduction, to Indonesia – otherwise it might have been a bit harder to enjoy some of the more rugged areas we visited along the way.

This is street art in Ubud

Recharging is what we came to Ubud for. With our last week in our two-month Indonesia adventure we wanted an opportunity to catch up, relax, and make new plans. Bali has a lot to offer including great beaches and diving but is also crowded; we were content with our unique aquatic experiences elsewhere and so weren’t seeking the coast. Up in the hills and rice terraces, Ubud sounded like a good place to enjoy some local culture while remaining pretty comfortable. At first we were surprised by how crowded it was with travelers – I think this may be the highest ratio of foreigners to locals we have encountered since Siem Reap and Angkor. But quickly the charm (and tasty food) took over our experience.

a rainy Bali landscape
these loaded motorbikes never get old…

We stayed in a roomy garden-filled guesthouse stylized after the numerous Hindu temples that are around every corner. This aesthetic is quite common in Bali, with Hindu motifs and statues on every wall and nook. After the primarily Muslim areas we had been elsewhere this was another big shift for us and I can’t say we especially missed the 4am calls to prayer from the local mosques! Our room was located near the main road in town but far enough back for it to be pleasantly quiet, which was great – we could easily walk to anything we needed while having a space to relax.

This temple doorway from Pura Tirta Empul is a good example of Balinese decor

We arrived looking for meals that didn’t center around rice and we were not disappointed. Fresh greens, fruits, and breads abounded. We gorged on salads, juices, and sandwiches, cheap duck eggs for breakfast, and even some fantastic crepes with real French cheese! Not wanting to wholly abandon Indonesian cuisine we also made sure to try out one of the higher end places providing such, and it was excellent: local tuna crudo, oxtail stew, and braised lamb shoulder. We even tried some local Bali wine and it was passable!

Think this breakfast looks good? Try traveling in Sulawesi for a month. Thanks Bali Buda!
Crepes at Le Moulin are better than some we had in Paris
Real cocktails (before an awesome dinner) at Hujan Locale

One of Ubud’s charming features is its market. Sure, much of it is for tourists and a lot of the stuff for sale is junk, but compared to many other such markets we’ve been to this one is laid back and enjoyable. There is little shouting or pestering for your attention and the layout takes you through a multilevel building as well as an ornamented alleyway. Unique artwork and crafts balance out the standard tourist fare and we were also able to load up on fresh fruit for our stay.

A small slice of Ubud’s market

One of the “must-see”s in Ubud is a local dance performance, of which they have a few different varieties put on by what seems like dozens of different venues. We selected the variant that focuses on elaborate costumes. It was entertaining and unique – the dancing focused on hand and eye movements more than I’ve seen otherwise (not that I’ve been to a great many dance performances), and lively accompanying music was played by an orchestra of traditional instruments.


Elaine was excited to partake in some yoga, another activity Ubud caters to. A pleasant wooden open-air studio was not far from our place and so she go several times during our stay. I also acquiesed to tagging along and joining in on a beginner’s class while Elaine was upstairs doing her advanced moves. If I was going to try yoga anywhere, Ubud would be the place, and it was pretty fun! I managed to not fall over, and found it to be a nice mix of unhurried and deliberate mental and physical activity kind of like a relaxed version of rock climbing.

We spent a day visiting a couple of the more famous temples on Bali: Pura Taman Ayun and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. We were more excited about the latter, with the former only filling in for a different temple that we couldn’t visit due to renovation; but after visiting both we found we preferred Taman Ayun. It has manicured open grounds that lead to the main temple itself – a small walled complex – behind which is a small forested garden. The whole temple is surrounded by an attractive moat. Ulun Danu Bratan, on the other hand, sounds appealing with its lake and volcano surroundings but came across as rather commercialized and haphazard. The temple tour trip also included a stop and brief walk around the scenic Jatiluwih rice terraces which was worth going out of the way for.

Taman Ayun’s moat and temple grounds
A great fountain too!
Temple and jungle at Taman Ayun





The waterfront Pura Ulun Danu Bratan


For some reason Ulun Danu Bratan has a lot of random animal sculptures scattered around outside the temple.
It may be a weird touristy site but the volcano crater backdrop ain’t bad
Rice terraces at Jatiluwih




Looking for a little more sightseeing, I rented a scooter on our last day and headed east while Elaine stayed in town for a spa visit. She’s not a huge fan of riding on the back of a motorbike and in this case she chose well: despite heading over to the guidebook-recommended Sideman Road, the views weren’t particularly good and I got soaked by a passing rainstorm. Fortunately the rain cleared as I found a more fun stretch of windy road to travel, and I passed a series of independence-day celebrations (it being the 72nd anniversary of Indonesia) on my way to Pura Tirta Empul temple. This is a really cool spot where crystal-clear spring water flows up from the ground and into a series of temple pools where it is customary to make an offering and douse yourself. It’s considered quite a special place by the Balinese and I can see why – it was totally worth throwing on a sarong (required) and wandering the grounds.

My soggy scooter on Sideman Road
This event involves a mud pit, a palm tree trunk, some convenience-store prizes and several adventurous youths. I was the only tourist here and got many warm smiles as crowds on both sides of the road cheered these guys on.
Spring-fed pools at Pura Tirta Empul



The crystal-clear water first flows up into this gorgeous reservoir before being fed into the nearby pools

Our appetites satisfied, plans made, and batteries recharged, we made for Bali’s airport in Denpasar and our flight to Malaysia (bought a month ago in order to extend our visa). We booked a group shuttle with plenty of time to spare, and fortunately so: not only was the driver quite late, he then disappeared for half an hour at a stop midway through the drive, and then Denpasar’s international terminal was a complete disaster. We had flown through the domestic terminal several weeks ago on our way from Flores to Sulawesi and it was totally fine so we were unprepared for the confusion and huge lines this time. Our expectation of a relaxed travel day with a few hours to kill at the airport turned into missing lunch, running for our flight, and then starving on the way to Kuala Lumpur. After two months in this country we shouldn’t have been surprised. Farewell Indonesia, you amazing, frustrating, exhausting, and beautiful place!

Some goodbye beers at the internationally-themed Melting Pot in Ubud.

Specifics: the airbnb we stayed at was Taman Mesari Homestay – certainly recommended, it has a great location but remains calm and quiet. For eating, we loved Bali Buda Cafe and their bakery/shop around the corner. Le Moulin has excellent crepes and Hujan Locale was great for semi-casual Indonesian dining.

For sightseeing in the area: As mentioned, Ulun Danu Bratan may be picturesque but lacks atmosphere so be prepared. Tirta Empul is also crowded but it didn’t seem to matter as much – it’s a really nice spot. The rice terraces at Jatiluwih are worth stopping at if it’s near your route – there were some groups biking the paths there which looked fun, but I’m not sure how far you can actually go. As for driving, I didn’t find Sideman Road to be all that great but I did find some fun roads in between the area south of Gunung Agung and the terraces north of Ubud. I think I would have actually preferred to rent a bicycle and ride north from Ubud up to Pura Tirta Empul.

A Tropical Sanctuary on Una-Una

The Togian Islands are probably the most out-of-the-way destination of our trip so far. Tucked into the huge gulf formed by the northern arm of Sulawesi, this Indonesian equatorial archipelago is only accessible by boat from a couple towns that are already far-flung themselves. We weren’t by any means certain it would be worthwhile to go here: a quick Google search will show the islands are indeed quite beautiful, but so is much of the Indonesian coast; and we had heard mixed things about the quality of the diving there. Would the experience make up for the trials of traveling via public vans, tuk-tuks, local ‘airlines’, and overnight ferries? The short answer is, yes indeed!

Wakai – the Togian Islands

We began this leg in the northeastern Sulawesi town of Tomohon, where we closed out our visit by finding more delicious ragey (fatty pork sate – we hadn’t had pork in a while, with much of Indonesia being primarily Muslim!). We worked our way to Manado’s airport on a combination of minibus and mikrolets – these are small blue hop-on hop-off vans which make up 99% of non-scooter traffic in this region of Sulawesi. We then took a short flight over to Gorontalo, skipping a 10-hour bus ride by paying $24 each rather than $12 (woo-hoo!). We parked ourselves in this nondescript port town for 36 hours, awaiting the ferry for our next leg.

driving a mikrolet, it’s common practice to keep cash piled in the dashboard for quick change

The “Tuna Tomini” ferry that sails between Gorontalo and Wakai in the Togeans offers a range of accommodation from open deck free-for-all (see this post for more on this Indonesian seagoing standard) to small bunk-bed cabins with AC. These are actually 4-bunk crew cabins that they rent out to tourists in an unofficial manner. They run 600-700k (~$50), quite steep compared to normal costs here in Indonesia, and they aren’t exactly posh! But having been on similar vessels before we were loathe to spend 13 hours in the heat, smoke, and noise of the cramped common areas. The best scenario would be to share the 4 bunks with another couple travelers but we didn’t know how to find anyone, nor did we know how to actually secure a cabin. Happily, both of these problems were solved simultaneously by asking at the hotel front desk: she knew a guy who arranged cabin bookings, and a Swiss couple passing by heard the discussion and said they were also looking for passage. Five minutes later the go-between shows up, sends a text to his buddies on the boat, and tells us there is one cabin left. Cash is exchanged for nothing but an assurance (this is typical) and the transaction is complete!

we made friends with a guy at the post office who, finding the supply of postcards in Gorontalo to be lacking, decided to make his own.

Our overnight ferry voyage was uneventful; we and our new Swiss friends were quite happy to have a small room. The common areas were indeed hot, smoky, noisy, and busy with both locals and less-fortunate tourists (of which there were many!). The bunks were tiny, but we actually slept fairly well and awoke to the sunrise as we arrived in Wakai.

ferry cabin! we were obligated to accept the American sheets.
outriggers in Wakai’s harbor

The final leg of our trip would be by a small boat out to our island of choice. For many travelers this is Kadidiri which is close to Wakai and has several dive resorts and homestays. We almost went there ourselves, but while considering our options a couple days previously we had decided instead to make for Una-Una. Una-Una is an active volcanic island that sits apart from the Togian chain and is remote even by local standards, with few inhabitants or connecting boats. So why go there? For the diving: unlike the other islands, Una-Una has not been commercially fished, which sadly in Indonesia commonly included dynamite and cyanide fishing in the not-too-distant past (which as you can imagine is not so good for reefs). So for Sanctum Resort on Una-Una we were bound. After some in-port confusion due to the surprisingly large group of seven of us who had made the same choice, we were packed into a small fiberglass boat for the 90 minute ride. This 5-meter vessel was close to meeting its match on the 1.5 meter swells in the open channel crossing and we were all soon soaking wet. The low, wide silhouette of Una-Una was painfully slow in changing from a hazy blue-green to distinct lush jungle and sand as we wallowed and splashed across, but finally we arrived, shot through a gap in the reef, and beached in front of Sanctum.

Sanctum’s pier, boats, and one of the friendly resident mutts.

Our soggy arrival was quickly righted by a warm welcome, warm shower (geothermal!), and hot coffee. Being greeted by two cute puppies Gula and Madu (Sugar and Honey) also helped, and this pair entertained us endlessly during our stay with their playful and friendly nature. What a place to be a puppy – an expansive beach, grass and jungle, friendly people, the occasional fish to gnaw on… Anyway we were quite comfortable here ourselves with a simple airy room, hammocks everywhere, a nice open area for meals and hanging out, and a great view along the empty tropical beach.

Gula and Madu playing on the beach


Despite its distant location Sanctum was quite busy with fellow travelers and we made some good friends from Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. The energetic dive staff also hailed from all over – Finland, Israel, France, and one instructor from Colorado. Family meals were a happy busy mix of guests and staff and were followed by lively games of cards and dice. It was a great group to hang out with and a wonderful place to relax! The food was simple – to be expected given where we were – but well done, with tasty vegetables, occasional fish or chicken, and fiery homemade sambal. One dinner we were all treated to some trevally sashimi by one of the guests who free dives with a speargun, and who also apparently travels with soy sauce and wasabi. It was served on a baking sheet and was incredibly delicious.


Gula and Gregor both tired after a busy day
life is tough here on Una-Una.

So we ate, made some friends, played cards and read, cuddled the puppies and watched the moonrise on the beach – all in between some great diving! The out-of-this-world experience that was Komodo remains unmatched, but Una-Una gave us some great sights and highlights that we were more than happy to have made the trip for. With the furthest sites merely 20 minutes away by boat (most much closer), going out for a dive was a breeze; and with absolutely nobody else around, each location was all ours to explore. We checked out underwater pinnacles decorated artfully with huge sponges and fans; drifted along reef walls and slopes; and hunted around in the ‘muck’ (sand/mud/grasses etc) for weird critters. We swam alongside big dogtooth tuna and banded Spanish mackerel, hung out inside a blackfin barracuda tornado, and visited with a couple cuttlefish (smart!) and a spiny seahorse (dumb!). On one dive we were paced for a solid ten minutes by a spotted eagle ray, which I’m pretty sure was just showing off as it glided around with occasional bursts of speed. That same dive we heard something new underwater as well – a deep, dull explosive boom which our guide confirmed via a unique hand signal as Una-Una’s volcano rumbling away.

tiny transparent blue shrimp hanging out in an anemone
As before, we didn’t bring our camera on most dives and the photos we have barely scratch the surface! But we got a few fun ones. Top left down the column: a pair of gobies, colorful tunicates (weird transparent animals), and three nudibranch (colorful mollusks). On the right, a mantis shrimp peers out of its hole, and on the bottom, a broadclub cuttlefish checks us out. See a cool video we got of the cuttlefish here – watch it change shape and color near the end!

As on Bunaken, a night dive here on Una-Una was a special treat and this was definitely our most amazing one yet. As soon as we dropped in we were face to face with a pair of juvenile African pompano, gorgeous silvery fish with long delicate filaments off of their fins – a special thing to find on a dive, and just the start for us. From there we found several bigfin reef squid hunting in the dark with their huge eyes. We didn’t seem to bother them and they swam quite close at times. After watching each other for a few minutes we actually saw one dart in near some coral, catch a fish, and tuck it away right in front of us!

The dive was still far from over. We went on to see a bevy of weird little shrimps and crabs, a blue-spotted stingray rooting around in the sand for something to eat, and hefty broadclub cuttlefish hovering around slowly like an alien spacecraft. Elaine found a pink/purple reef octopus hiding in a rock and I spotted a big blunt decorator crab moseying along in its disguise of reef detritus. After a full 90 minutes of diving (our longest by far) we emerged exhausted and exhilarated, with our guide Dean also ecstatic – one of the best dives of his life, he said. Hunting squid! Juvenile African pompanos! He was bubbling over the rest of evening chatting with his fellow dive pros. It was also with Dean that we saw the eagle ray, spiny seahorse, and many other awesome things – by the time we were leaving he had declared us quite lucky and wished he could keep diving with us.

the hand-sized blunt decorator crab! See its two eye stalks sticking out?

Once again we managed to completely exhaust ourselves by the time we packed up to leave our diving destination. Our trip to Una-Una brought me to over 60 dives, with Elaine not far behind – considering that merely seven weeks before we had arrived in Indonesia with nothing but a notion to perhaps try out diving, this is some combination of impressive and ridiculous. But we both remain completely enthralled with the activity, and given how much Indonesia has to offer at really good prices, I can’t say I find that number to be excessive at all!


Our journey away from Una-Una partially retraced our steps; a small boat to Wakai (thankfully smaller swells) followed by taking the Tuna Tomini ferry to Gorontalo, this time bunking with a couple of our new friends from Sanctum. After staying a night in Gorontalo and visiting the local “pizza” establishment (ever do the toaster-oven pizza thing with English muffins, frozen shredded cheese, and processed red sauce? Think that flavor) we caught a couple flights through Makassar to Bali, thereby re-emerging from our several weeks of travel pretty far off the beaten path.

departing the Togians at sunset
cards on the top deck with our Dutch friend Merit
locals relaxing on the ferry
Una-Una is the island in the distance on the right hand side.

N.E. Sulawesi from -40 to 1600 meters

Our journey from Sulawesi’s southwestern corner to Palau Bunaken in the northeast was a familiar relay of car – plane – car – boat – motorbike. The only close call came in catching the public boat out of Manado’s ferry after we landed in the afternoon, but fortunately (for us; not so fortunate for the folks who had been waiting on the boat for hours) the departure was delayed due to the tides and we got onboard just in time. This was a typical public Indonesian vessel piled with dry goods, fresh food, Bintang beer, and 5-gallon water jugs, with people parked in the remaining nooks and crannies.

on the boat to Bunaken

As we puttered over to the island we ran into Ferdinand, the Dutch owner of the dive resort we were headed for. He’s a funny guy with a ton of diving experience and we enjoyed chatting with him during our stay. Like many other expat-run businesses he’s teamed up with his local wife and family – she runs the room and board and he handles the diving. Their place (Cakalang – pronounced cha-ka-leng) is a cute beachside set of bungalows and buildings where they serve tasty family-style meals in between dive excursions. They have worked hard here to create something functional and sensical and it works well – Ferdinand has designed and built many components of the business himself from the main building to the trash incinerator (a real one, not a typical roadside fire) and even the details of their commissioned dive boats.

relaxing by the beach
Cakalang’s tiles are homemade from incinerated trash!
Bauer (named after the air compressor) hanging out by the boat

Bunaken is much more of the tropical ideal for us than Bira was. Having a perfect place to stay certainly helps a lot, but it goes well beyond that. The island is a beautiful combination of jungle, mangrove, beach, and reefs, with no big eyesore resorts marring the palm tree vistas. The air is fresh, the sand and ocean mostly garbage-free, and the water is the clearest we’ve seen – you can look down from the dive boat before even getting wet and clearly see corals and fish tens of meters down. Once down on a typical dive you’re floating along  at 25 meters with crystal clarity above and a view down the vertical reef wall to at least another 30m deep, often more. This makes for some spectacular views – sunlight beams down over the top of the reef and through caverns onto massive sponges and fan corals, and just off the face of the wall thousands of fish are schooling and eating while turtles glide around everywhere.



Elaine with her new dive computer!

Most outings here were peaceful wall dives like this, each unique and interesting thanks to our guide Mervy being very good at finding interesting critters.  Bunaken is not a place to see big sharks or rays, but we’ve seen a lot of small amazing things here that are really exciting to find like leaf scorpionfish, ghost pipefish, brightly colored ribbon eels, and an adorably minuscule pygmy seahorse (no way in hell I would have found that myself – thanks Mervy!). A night dive was also prolific with all sorts of crustaceans including big hermit crabs, banded shrimps, and a chunky hand-sized decorator crab (these stick reef rubble on their exterior for camouflage and look like a weirdly animated collection of junk when moving). In the dark we also found a trifecta of mini cephalopods: tiny octopus, cuttlefish, and squid.

our intrepid guide Mervy
I jumped in between dives for a quick photo


Evenings at Cakalang are a time for relaxing in the perfectly warm air, enjoying a cold beer while playing cards or reading, and listening to one of the locals play guitar or Ferdinand tell some of his stories. He’s got some good ones, both from his 12 years here in Bunaken and his previous life diving in Europe. The waves gently wash up through the mangroves on the beach and the three rotund little dogs contentedly lie nearby, at least until one of the big red jungle crabs wanders near looking for some food scraps. It’s really quite lovely!

listening to Ferdinand’s stories
Cakalang in the evening

One dive that didn’t fit the Bunaken wall-dive mold was the Molas wreck. This is a pretty big (70m long) steel cargo or fishing vessel off the nearby mainland. It sank sometime around WWII and lies almost upright with a slight starboard list. We’ve been on a couple other ‘wreck’ dives before – see our Gili post – but this was our first honest-to-goodness shipwreck and it did not disappoint. We descended through relatively low visibility for here (still 10-15m), following a line until the huge bow of the ship slowly appeared. Swimming down along the starboard side we marveled at all of the stuff that has grown on the structure in the last 70 or so years, and then descended to close to 40 meters at the stern (our deepest dive yet) to see the two big screws. After ascending a bit around the port side, but while still pretty deep, suddenly one of the other divers in our group caught my attention – she had a problem. It was unclear what, and she was panicking a little. She wanted to immediately ascend, but she did a good job signaling and staying with the group instead. I tried giving her my secondary regulator but she waved it off, only wanting to surface. So I took her over to our guide to get his attention and he quickly helped her calm down and switch to her backup regulator – later we found out that the rubber mouthpiece had torn and she was getting some seawater in as she tried to breathe. It all resolved itself quickly and we continued the dive, but this was a good experience for me to see how Mervy calmly handled the problem!


We weren’t very excited about leaving comfortable Cakalang behind but we had to pull ourselves away eventually. Our next destination was Tangkoko Park on the main island of Sulawesi, home to some fun creatures such as the tarsier. We took the public boat back to the coastal city of Manado with the intent to head to a bus terminal and make a couple transit connections out to the park. As we walked along with our heavy packs in the midday heat, fatigue started catching up with us (doing 3 dives a day, even when they’re calm, is tiring!). We’ve been there before plenty of times – the stress of figuring out how to get somewhere can sap your energy – but usually we just push on through. Not this time, however – upon losing a lunchtime roll of the dice on what turned out to be unappealing organ soup, our ambition to travel further that day evaporated into the hot and smoky city air. Revising our goals for the day, we sought refuge at a nearby hotel that Ferdinand had recommended. This was a good decision. We napped, caught up on odds and ends, and found a good satay place for dinner.

the sembal in this part of Indonesia is deadly spicy

After further planning we decided to skip Tangkoko altogether and spend a few days up in the cool hills of Minahasa, an area south of the city of Manado. We took a public bus up the windy narrow road to the small destination town of Tomohon, popular with both locals and tourists. Of fame here is a macabre market (which we skipped), birdwatching (we saw some nice birds, though I think the grandeur was a bit lost on us compared to the camo and camera laden pros), and the volcanic jungle countryside. We got a bungalow at a run down but cute place with a view of the dramatic Gunung Lokon (an active volcano) and spent an afternoon wandering up through the town.

on the public minibus
one of the local volcanoes, Gunung Lokon
our bungalow

Tomohon itself is a pleasantly clean place with a good sidewalk (rarities in Indonesia!). Beyond this the town itself isn’t remarkable, though it is surrounded by some beautiful countryside. Finding a place to eat that looked okay and offered more than a collection of fried items was a little challenging, but happily we decided to stop at a busy little satay place where smoke was billowing out of the fire pit. This place goes by the name of Ragey Von Von (ragey is a type of satay here in the Minahasa region, turns out) and they served up some super tasty pork belly skewers and grilled tuna.

Tomohon is really several clusters of buildings strung out along a main road
These signs are all over Indonesia and we finally got a photo of one. Everyone here is rail thin and yet their crosswalk man looks like the Hulk. Maybe it’s supposed to make drivers think twice about hitting someone, but if so it doesn’t work well because these signs are meaningless here.

Having heard that hiking up nearby Gunung Lokon was a good way to spend part of a day, we wanted to give it a shot. It’s close and small enough to do on your own but it being an active volcano with a few different ways to die we figured we might as well go with a guide. We arranged one through our host and set our alarms for 3:30am the next morning so that we could enjoy the sunrise up at the crater.

We met our guide Jotje in the predawn dark over some coffee. Jotje has been guiding here in Minahasa for decades (he told us about some of the first Americans he guided, missionary doctors back in 1975) and has climbed Lokon over five thousand times by his estimate. So to say the least he knows the mountain rather well. We began the hike on a fairly gentle slope of an old andesite lava flow scattered with rubble from huge boulders to black sand. A starless cloudy sky made us a bit apprehensive about it actually being worth coming for sunrise, but as we neared the crater (and the level of the low clouds) we started to see breaks coming through. Unlike one’s mental image of a ‘typical’ volcano, Lokon’s crater sits adjacent to its bright green peak rather than atop it, so reaching the crater is quite easier than actually summiting.

catching sight of the summit through the dawn clouds

We arrived at the crater by sunrise and our early start paid out in spades with dramatically lit views of the smoking quarry-sized pit and neighboring peak fringed with passing pink clouds. Past the crater we could see the coastline and the island of Palau Bunaken where we had just been. As the low fluffy clouds rolled by Jotje continually remarked at how unique and beautiful this morning’s scene was – lucky us! (I don’t think he was just saying that for our benefit – he couldn’t restrain himself from taking photo after photo himself).




Jotje our guide
looking out at the islands where we had been diving


From the crater we looked uphill and began climbing towards the summit. At this point the toxic smoke from the cauldron appeared to stop which made Jotje nervous – “it’s not good when it stops smoking”, he observed. “Maybe we only go up a little ways.” It was only a brief pause, however, and with billows of smoke behind us (blowing away downwind) we hoofed up the steep slope. This was tough going on the way up and we anticipated correctly it would be even less fun going down: lots of loose, sliding rubble for a ways followed by steep dense mud covered with tall sharp-edged grasses. Our efforts were rewarded with some grand panoramas of nearby Sulawesi, in addition to actually reaching the marked summit of the volcano. For scenery alone we decided the summit wasn’t worthwhile compared to the crater, but as many tourists only visit the latter we left with the satisfaction of a unique accomplishment (along with more than a few scrapes and cuts).

The summit trail heads up left past the crater. Watch out for loose rocks and toxic fumes!



the summit itself isn’t much of a view because of the grasses


We spent our remaining time in Tomohon relaxing though afternoon rainshowers, playing cards, wandering around, and dodging rather sizable, tenacious, and painful spiny ants. Our next intended destination, after a stopover in Gorontalo, are the off-the-grid Togean Islands for more tropical coast bliss and diving (hopefully) – who knows when we’ll be back online!

putting your hand down on one of these little devils isn’t fun


South Sulawesi: Pantai Bira

It’s been quite a battle to get this post online – the internet in Sulawesi leaves a lot to be desired!

Moving on from Komodo National Park posed a significant challenge for us. What could possibly match the experience we had here and not just be a disappointment? We knew three things for sure, at least: one, that we had a solid five weeks left in Indonesia (having needed to book a departure flight in order to extend our visa). Two, that there was still far more to see in this vast, logistically-challenged country than five weeks would allow. And three, that our thirst for amazing diving was nowhere near slaked.

Frankly it’s mostly the diving that is keeping us enthralled with Indonesia. The country is otherwise lacking in charm, culture, and cuisine compared to our previous locales (namely Vietnam and Thailand). This is a harsh oversimplification – the people here are friendly as anywhere, beautiful beaches and volcano panoramas abound, and the living is the cheapest we’ve yet encountered.

Indonesia may not be perfect, but it does have views like this.

So what do I have to complain about? I suppose a lot of it actually comes down to food, as trite as that may seem. Cuisine and its surrounding culture is a big part of what we enjoy experiencing while traveling. Heading off to an unknown destination, having no idea where to stay or if we’ll be able to communicate or if there’s anything interesting to do, is much more fun if we know that no matter what we’ll be able to find a delicious and/or adventurous meal when we arrive. Vietnam and Thailand provided this in spades; Indonesia just doesn’t. This is no doubt due at least in part to more scant conditions, but regardless it’s a real aspect of traveling here for us.

a typical Indonesian dinner

To be sure: we’ve found some very tasty food here in Indonesia. Grilled chicken and fish, in particular, can be satisfyingly fresh and delicious in a way that farm-raised stuff you get back home just can’t be. Some of the homemade sauces and sembal are remarkably flavorful (and powerfully spicy), and nowhere have we had such perfectly prepared tofu and tempeh, it’s really good. But ultimately most meals center around a large scoop of rice with a modest amount of the aforementioned items and perhaps some boiled veggies, every time, and after a while it does get old. The various vibrant soups and salads of mainland southeast Asia are sorely missed. Much as it pains me to say this we’re thankful to have found some standout Western cuisine in both the Gilis and Labuanbajo.

this meal was pretty good: peanutty gado-gado, sauteed water spinach, and grilled barracuda.

Okay, enough on food and back to our conundrum of where to go. We wanted more diving, and thanks to Indonesia being quite cheap if nothing else, we could afford to do more so why stop now. We looked into a range of possible destinations. The Indonesian archipelago is literally swimming in reefs: Raja Ampat, Alor, the Bandas, Sulawesi… we narrowed down the list by what’s affordable (Raja Ampat off of Papua is amazing but also exclusive) and weather this time of year (not a good time for Alor or the Bandas), leaving us with Sulawesi – the immense contorted island that sits between Borneo and Papua and has several locations reportedly good for diving.

the beautiful waters of Sulawesi

We booked a flight from Bajo to Makassar, the main city in the southwest corner of Sulawesi. A more adventurous and thrifty traveler – or any local – would take one of the large ferries that connect Flores to Sulawesi. This option is approximately free and comes with a corresponding level of comfort and accommodation. Having experienced 7 hours on a similar boat the prospect of a 24 hour journey was a bit too daunting for us. At least we made the ‘local’ journey on the way out!

The island of Sulawesi is large – dimensionally comparable to the UK or California, as a couple examples. Using the cool website of MAPFrappe, which I just discovered for this purpose, I can illustrate this for you by placing a scale outline of weirdly-shaped Sulawesi anywhere on the globe:

courtesy of MAPFrappe and Google Maps

Now imagine getting around the UK or California, but all the roads are narrow, extremely contorted, and strewn with everything from goats to gravel. Aggressive dodging and weaving lets you max out around 60 kmh (37 mph). As you can imagine it takes a little while to get from A to B. Doing so being one of 10 people packed into a 7 seat car is neither unusual nor particularly comfortable. On these lengthy drives you are subject to the whim of the driver for whether you stop for food or a toilet. As mentioned before, these guys can survive indefinitely on coffee and cigarettes. Yup, you get to sit there while your fellow passengers smoke, but no matter, the outside air is often just as foul from the countless roadside trash fires. But everyone is smiling and friendly, and the driver – when he does stop – is happy to help you order something off a nearby grill to sustain you.

along for the ride in Makassar
rural roadside Sulawesi on the way to Pantai Bira

We were happy to finally arrive at our first Sulawesian destination of Pantai Bira following a pair of flights, an overnight in Makassar, and 8 hours of driving between taxi, motor-rickshaw, and public car. The distance we covered over land on Sulawesi was pitifully small compared to the whole island, leaving us pondering the remainder of our traveling here (foreshadowing: more flights in our future).

Makassar’s motor rickshaws: you are the bumper!

Bira is a quiet oceanside town populated primarily by goats. Cats and humans tie for second-most. It is a tourist destination for – you guessed it – diving! Compared to the dive destinations we’d been to so far, however, Bira is far less busy. We weren’t prepared for how challenging it would be to even find an outfit to dive with, having just come from the intense competition of Komodo and the Gilis. Other tourist amenities were also missed such as wifi (which we knew going in) and options for meals (a lot more scarce than expected).

Bira’s main drag. this photo shows pretty much everything going on in town

The coastline here is the standard Indonesian mix we are now used to of glittering blue waters, green jungle, and garbage everywhere. We’ve been told several times that everything in Indonesia ends up either in a trash fire or the ocean and it’s no exaggeration – there’s no infrastructure in place for anything else. It’s sad and frustrating, especially since one of the biggest sources of garbage – plastic water bottles – are a necessary evil for everyone including ourselves. We have filters and purification tablets but that doesn’t help when the tap is part saltwater, or laced with toxic minerals.

this is the stuff we crop out of most photos (and it can be much worse than this)

Because we were only competing with about six other tourists for ten times as many guesthouse rooms, we succeeded in securing a relatively nice and spacious hilltop room sporting a real toilet and sink, plus a massive resident gecko that, in exchange for leaving equally massive droppings around, kept the place free of creepy-crawlies. Armed with a rental scooter we set out the next day to find a dive shop. Easier said than done! We visited a couple locations in the area home to recommended outfits but nobody was home. Surprisingly – given how things typically work here – email came through where face to face didn’t. (We had earlier purchased a data sim card for Elaine’s phone, thankfully, and so we could claw a little into the internet from time to time.) We got in touch with Johan who runs Sulawesi Dive Adventure and the next day joined some fellow Korean and Russian divers on a small converted fishing boat.


sunset on Bira’s quiet beach

The diving here came nowhere close to comparing to Komodo. This was not helped by the folks running the operation, who were disorganized, non-communicative, and not very good at finding the best sites, all on account of the regular divemaster taking some time off from work. Still, we found we were confident in our ability by now to take full responsibility for ourselves and our safety – had we encountered this situation earlier on we would have been quite uncomfortable. We learned that we really wanted our own dive computers, to be further independent and safe; and we did get at least a few dives that were really great.

our dive boat while in Bira
a cute little hermit crab on the beach

The best dive in Bira by far was the “Great Wall” off of Kambing Island which was a stunningly clear drift along a vertical reef wall extending below us to perhaps 60 meters; tuna swam back and forth past us through huge schools of triggerfish and fusiler as we cruised by. A venomous sea snake hunted through the corals. Cute reef fish, caring nothing for gravity, oriented themselves whichever way made the reef ‘down’ – in most cases, vertically, and when below an overhang, inverted. At one point a large group of sizeable blackfin barracuda slowly approached, and then as if we were a pylon of a race course or a judge in a parade, made a 180 around us a mere arm’s length away before meandering off.

hanging out off of Kambing Island after a great dive


We had a few highlights on some other dives as well. A giant bumphead parrotfish, several green sea turtles (big ones and juveniles), many whitetip sharks (again, big ones and juveniles), some big cowtail rays hiding in the sandy bottom, and a wee little baby banded sea snake thinner than a pencil figuring out how to swim and find dinner. Other dives, however, were marred by an abundance of floating trash, very low visibility, or some less than stellar guiding by our inexperienced crew. We had hoped to see some hammerheads or mantas, having read they might be around, but no luck. Overall we decided that coming to Bira wasn’t really worthwhile compared to other areas in Indonesia, but we made the best we could of it once we were there!

between dives wetsuit photo op


Other items of interest in Bira: watching cute little goat kids gallivanting around, strolling the beaches if you can dodge the trash, and checking out the local boatbuilding. This regional trade of fabricating traditional wooden boats and ships is still done on a regular basis at scales larger than the small fishing craft we’d seen so far. Scaffolding is erected directly over the beach where the vessel is pieced together by bending and pinning planks into place over a wooden frame. The results are beautiful wide-bellied hulls – some over 30m in length, I’d guess – which are fitted out in the nearby harbor to order.



So after a few days diving followed by internetless lounging (cards and books, mostly) we were ready to move on. We had, by this point, decided that working our way up by land along Sulawesi wasn’t going to happen –  not much of interest to us and too much driving. We booked a cheap flight from Makassar up to Manado in the northeast of Sulawesi, an area that we hoped would suit us with its combination of tropical islands, reefs, jungle, and mountains. Another bumpy cramped car ride back from Bira brought us back to the hectic sprawl of Makassar and a comfy recharge-and-plan stay at a fancy hotel (TV and room service, wahoo!)


Specifics: if you go to Bira, definitely get a sim card first so you can use data and make local calls. It’ll be really hard to arrange things otherwise especially if your host doesn’t speak English. There are plenty of guesthouse options in town, none close to being full when we were there, though many people stay instead at one of the beachside resorts or bungalows to the east or west of town and you can probably get a good deal on one of those too if you shop around. Cosmos (beachside resort) was cute and popular. We dove with Sulawesi Dive Adventure – the owner Johan was helpful and responsive over email and based on reviews I expect diving with his normal guides is better than what we got. You might also try Bira Dive Camp which seemed somewhat busy, at least. But I think you’re better off going somewhere other than Bira unless you’re in Makassar, short on time, and it’s your only chance to see sharks.

Awe-Inspiring Komodo

Our boat pulls up over the dive site, fighting for position against a strong westward current. Deep blue water gives way to lighter turquoise: we’re over the submerged seamount called Castle Rock. The surface is energetically swirling as the tidal flow washes over and around the big underwater obstacle. One of the crew calls out – up ahead, fish are jumping. Something below is making them nervous. We draw near, checking our gear, and then follow our guide into the water. We must descend quickly, kicking into the current, aiming for the sweet spot referred to as the “split” where the current parts around the rocky reef. Being too slow means missing this prime viewing location – or worse, being pushed clear off the dive site and into the blue. We’re on target, however, and I’m doing my best to kick efficiently without sucking down a lot of air. As we drop I spot first one shark, then another, and then several more. Seconds later we’re clinging to the rocks at 22 meters, being shoved around as the Flores Sea washes over us. Immediately ahead no fewer than eight whitetip reef sharks are cruising around in the current among huge schools of fusilier, surgeonfish, and trevally. We found the action – welcome to Komodo!

reefs everywhere!

Be warned: pretty much all we did in Labuanbajo was dive. It was absolutely amazing and we have almost no photos of it to share with you. What few underwater photos we have come woefully short of representing the spectacle. So I must resort to some wordy descriptions which I apologize for. But if you imagine the most extravagant and vibrant fish-packed reefs, whether from photos or aquariums or the Planet Earth TV series, what we saw over our time here in no way fell short. By comparison to the Gilis which were relaxed and entertaining, diving here was far more intense and awe-inspiring. Fish were much bigger and more plentiful, the range of life large and small was mind-boggling, and the currents and topography were absolutely wild.

Labuanbajo: cute, grungy, and bustling

But first, before we did any of this, we arrived in Labuanbajo with no plans on record. We secured a room and then walked the busy little front street of the town, eyeing innumerable dive operators offering everything from quick day trips to week-long liveaboard experiences. We had come to realize by this point that July and August are the high season here so finding lodging was tough and relatively expensive. These being the circumstances we thought a liveaboard for a few days might make a lot of sense, and so we shopped around for one. Now, we knew the diving here to be challenging and as freshly minted advanced open water divers we didn’t want to get in over our heads. We wanted an outfit that would be able to gauge and adjust for our abilities. We settled on Blue Marlin Komodo – though a bit more expensive than others, I believed they would give us both a safe and rewarding experience, and the food onboard promised to be excellent as well.

our liveaboard boat, the Ikan Biru

We signed up for three nights on the liveaboard, and after a day off between travels, set off from Labuanbajo into Komodo National Park on the Ikan Biru (“Blue Fish”). What followed was a wonderfully busy few days of world-class diving, beautiful coastal panoramas, delicious meals, comfortable siestas, and quiet open-air nights on the covered top deck of a great little boat. There were four other guests along with us (all awesome people) and three dive staff plus the gracious local crew. We loved every minute of it! Our fellow divers were Laura, from our recent home of Oakland, CA; Sophia, from Denmark; Lars, of Sweden; and Lars’ daughter Freja who is a scuba force of nature with 100 dives at the age of 17. Sean our liveaboard director made us feel super prepared for each dive, and Edwin and Alex were both fantastic guides.

view from the deck




lunch onboard beats most of our land-based meals!
relaxing after a dive and hearty breakfast
sunset (or sunrise? can’t recall) from one of our moorings

Each day on board followed the same routine. Wake up with the sunrise, grab some coffee and fruit, and brief the first dive. Hop on the skiff to zip out from wherever we were moored or anchored, dive, and return for breakfast including freshly baked bread (a rare treat in Indonesia at all, let alone onboard a small boat). Rest, brief, dive #2, then eat lunch; rest, brief, and dive #3; rest and watch the sunset, brief, and dive #4 at night; dinner, maybe a beer, and then, being quite exhausted, go to sleep. During downtime: chat with our new friends, oogle the scenery as we moved from place to place, flip through fish ID books and try to remember all of the cool things we saw during the last dive.

Laura prepares her gear on our dive skiff
Elaine gears up on deck, with our guide Edwin in the background
Sean briefs a night dive as the sun goes down
Sean drew great briefing maps before each dive

I made a total of 18 dives here in Komodo, and Elaine 15, so there’s no way we can relate them all (at least here). They were all amazing and ran the gamut from serene sunset and night dives to fast, adrenaline pumping drift dives or splits like Castle Rock. Most of these were during our liveaboard trip, but we liked diving here so much (and had some time to burn while we were renewing our visa) that we went back out on some day outings. So, too much to cover, or really even fully absorb yet. I will retell our most epic single dive, however; this occurred at a site called The Cauldron, early on in our working up the Komodo learning curve.

The Ikan Biru from the sunny foredeck

The Cauldron is located in a channel between two islands in the north area of Komodo. There is a large bowl-like depression maybe 40m in diameter at the narrowest part of the channel. When the tide is falling the current flows eastward through the channel, over the Cauldron (churning up the surface) and out through a necked down area called “the shotgun”. The fast current makes for an exciting dive and also – we hoped – attracts awesome large stuff like manta rays. The dive plan is as follows: drop in west of the channel and explore the mix of sand and corals there; enter and check out the Cauldron for a little while; exit via the shotgun, hanging on with reef hooks at opportune times; and then swim perpendicular to the current to get out of it as it pushes us east, wrapping up in a soft coral garden called China Shop.

The Cauldron lies below this channel that funnels the tide

Things started out as briefed; Elaine and I backrolled off the boat with our guide Edwin and dove down to mosey between coral bommies, looking at groupers, morays, and turtles. Being a little ways away from the channel we only felt the current as a slight tug. After ten minutes or so we were swimming across an open area from one coral group to another when Edwin pointed ahead and waved his arms. What we really hoped to see, but did not expect to as they are scarce this time of year: a manta ray!

This is perhaps the most graceful thing I have ever seen. The manta slowly approached us out of the blue as we hovered and watched. Whether it was curious or we were simply in its way, I don’t know, but it cruised within a few meters and slowed. It was like an encounter with an alien species, or rather, a native species with us as the aliens. Nothing quite looks as comfortable with its surroundings as a manta ray does. After a few moments of checking each other out it calmly banked away on its huge wings and glided off. Huzzah! We were all psyched – everything else on this dive would be icing on the cake (we thought).

We followed the manta a little ways to see if it would turn around, but it disappeared. Then we explored around a bit more, following Edwin up against the current. We stumbled upon a big whitetip which was the first we had seen in Komodo and certainly the closest we’d been to one – cool! Then it was clearly time to head to the Cauldron, at which point things became confusing. Not entirely sure where we had ended up, Edwin surfaced to look around and then headed off at a strong clip, Elaine and I kicking along as best we could. We crossed over some corals and then out over a barren stretch of rock and sand which seemed to go on forever. In between kicks and watching my dwindling air supply I exchanged skeptical looks with Elaine. At a certain point I became convinced we were in the completely wrong place and that we would run out of air and surface somewhere unexpected off of Komodo – I didn’t see how we could have possibly strayed so far against the current earlier on.

Our guide Edwin – “I think it’s this way, guys!”

I had given up on actually seeing the Cauldron when it finally came into view maybe forty minutes into our dive. Whew! I didn’t have much air left, however – I signaled 60 bar to Edwin (this is ~30% of a full tank and just a hair above the 50 bar time-to-surface reserve). We sailed over the bowl of the Cauldron – no time to stop and look! – and straight into the shotgun. As briefed we hooked onto the lip for a couple minutes for the experience of current blasting in your face before releasing and sailing backwards and away. Fun! That was cool, time to wrap it up.

Or not. A mere 40 or 50 meters downstream Edwin pointed up to the side. Another manta, this one surfing the current with ease alongside us! And another, a little further away! Edwin signaled to grab on again and we did, clumping up and waving in the current. I watched the rays up to my left for a few moments until Edwin managed to get my attention and point backwards – there right behind our little group, almost joining us, was yet another of the huge black and white creatures. This was an awesome and awkward few minutes as we craned our necks around to watch, my tank in Edwin’s face, him looking at my air gauge (okay, one more minute!), ropes of the reef hooks biting into our hands. It was unreal, as if we were hanging on the lip of a waterfall while this magical creature levitated effortlessly below us.

The time quickly came to depart and so we were shoved out of the shotgun, our manta friend lifting up and over us to make room. Dive still not over, however – we had to exit the current to the north and get to our pickup point. Edwin, well aware of my air status, signaled me over and pulled his secondary regulator free. I took it and, both of us breathing from the same tank and locked quite close together, we kicked and kicked with Elaine alongside until we were in still waters off of the China Shop reef. Whew! Back to my reg, safety stop at 5 meters, and then surfaced 52 minutes after our adventure began, giddy and smiling.

a shallow drift dive let us bring our little camera (only good to 15m). Elaine!
not even close to capturing what these reefs are like
drifting along!
clownfish are easy to photograph because they actually stay put in their anemone
Gregor exploring a reef

What else did we see over so many dives? I’ll wrap up the recap with a hyper-abbreviated list of some of the fish and creature highlights. Of course it’s more than just checkboxes of this-and-that: it’s a whole combined experience and visual impact of expansive corals, darting schools of big fish, and so many remarkable sights that they become commonplace (definitely lost count of the turtles and sharks we saw). But here’s a few cool things to google: a broadclub cuttlefish hovering right in front of us and flashing ripples of light and color across its body like it’s an LCD screen. A huge giant moray out and swimming down the picture perfect coral slope of Batu Bolong. A hairy bat crab tucking itself into its burrow; a white V octopus scuttling around in the dark at night; a dark green angler frogfish perched on a rock, sitting on its feet-like fins. Tiny little iridescent bobtail squid. A weedlike orangutang crab clutching its coral home. A wispy sea feather star swimming along (normally they just sit there, seeing one swim is really cool). A venemous banded sea krait (that’s a snake!) hunting in the reef right next to us. The list goes on…

leaving Ikan Biru for a night dive
farewell Ikan Biru!

Oh yeah – I almost forgot, we also went and saw Komodo dragons! This was quite anticlimactic. One reason for this is it came at the tail end (no pun intended) of our wonderful liveaboard diving experience, with the shuttle speedboat bringing us to the big park island of Rinca on the way back to town. Another reason was that despite taking a (fairly short) wilderness hike through the park, the only dragons we saw were wallowing about near the ranger station and kitchen. They claim to not feed them – I’m skeptical. At any rate we got a good close look at these hefty reptiles and took in a few scenic panoramas of the island.


Elaine wasn’t thrilled about posing next to these ones
the blue waters of the Flores Sea around the island of Rinca
dramatic cape pose
underwater critter signs with our dive pal Laura

Beyond diving, life in Labuanbajo has been pretty relaxed. We bounced around between a few different rooms while not on the liveaboard, ranging from barely tolerable to quite cushy. Meals also were widely varied, from cheap street rice and delectable grilled market seafood to some of the best pizza we’ve found anywhere in the world (thank you chef Marco for leaving Italy for Indonesia!). Our stay here was drawn out somewhat by the need to renew our visa: once we returned from the dive trip we had already burned up three weeks of our allotted four, and with so much of Indonesia left that we might like to see, we decided to extend. This was a several-day overly complicated procedure of which I will spare you the details but we got through it fairly painlessly and took an extra day trip diving while we waited for it to process.

at Kantor Imigrasi on tiny scooter
this guy followed us from the hotel while we got coffee
fanning the flames at the waterfront fish market
deliciously fresh grilled squid

Our stay in ‘Bajo now draws to a close, having finally made plans to depart. I could totally just stay here and keep diving indefinitely – the idea of becoming a divemaster and instructor here is quite tempting! – but there is more of the world to see. At least for now.

our final location, beachside lounging
‘bye ‘Bajo!

Specifics: we stayed in Komodo Lodge (quite nice, and good value once you adjust for higher Bajo prices); Hotel Mutiara (very cheap for here; we survived 3 nights and were both happy to have saved some money and happy to depart); and Sylvia Resort (quite comfy but too far away from town). We dove with Blue Marlin Komodo (both liveaboard and a day trip) and Scuba Republic (a day trip). The Blue Marlin liveaboard was fantastic and I would absolutely recommend it. For the day trip I preferred Scuba Republic: their boat, though slower, is much more comfortable and it’s cheaper. We enjoyed eating at the public fish market down by the port; rice plates at Warung Mama; pizza at Made in Italy (yes it’s more expensive than normal Indonesian fare, but for what you get, it’s a good value); and having cold Prost beer and nachos at Blue Marlin’s sunset view patio.

Visa extension: took a total of three days and three visits (which were all quick and courteous for us). The office is on the other side of the airport so you need to get a ride or rent a motorbike. We had read and heard that unlike in Bali, Imigrasi here requires sponsors for every extension. We lined one up but then it turned out it wasn’t necessary, perhaps due to the fact that we weren’t doing our divemaster training (this was one of the few questions they asked). Come to your first visit dressed nicely, with photocopies of your passport page, visa page, a printout of your departure flight receipt, and a black pen, and you should be all set.

Winding Through West Nusa Tenggara

West Nusa Tenggara is a province of Indonesia sitting just east of Bali in the island chain of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Our stay on Gili Air had brought us to the very westernmost (closest to Bali) end of this province; from there we would work our way eastward, first through the large island of Lombok.

we spent a comfy night here in Senggigi, Lombok

We said our farewells to peaceful Gili Air and traveled by boat and bus over to Sengiggi, a coastal town on the big island of Lombok. This is a bit of a resort / pass-through town where we grabbed a nice room for a night while we planned our next adventure. Sengiggi isn’t particularly remarkable in any sense, nor is it relaxing (unless you’re paying for a secluded resort) but it does have a very nice beach which was entertainingly mobbed with locals on account of it being a holiday.

fishing off the point at Senggigi
busy beach on a holiday

Our objective while on Lombok was to spend a couple nights trekking up Gunung Rinjani, the 3700m volcanic peak at the center of the island with a picturesque caldera lake and hot springs. It sounded a bit difficult but we’ve done similar hikes before and had a pretty good sense of what we’d be in for. After researching more thoroughly, however, we learned that hordes of uneducated and/or uncaring guides and hikers have turned the trail into a garbage dump over the past ten years. Further, while everybody and their uncle on Lombok claims to be a guide, only a select few organizations are both properly prepared and protective of the park (and these ones were quite expensive). What to do? Hiking and camping for us is much more than just the destination, we like to enjoy a beautiful and natural journey even if (or especially when) it’s challenging. While I’m sure we would have made the most of it had we gone we eventually decided that there are plenty of other opportunities in Indonesia and moved on.

ayam taliwang means “really tasty grilled chicken”

This left us open for what, if anything, we would do on Lombok while there. We elected to stay a couple nights at a homestay in the center of the island at the foot of Rinjani. We imagined quiet jungle scenery and rustic solitude. The reality of where we ended up was a bit busier than pictured, including a rather proximate mosque (these are not quiet neighbors in the early morning) and lots of interaction with the countless members of the host family as well as other guests. The latter was of course quite fun and interesting as we joined the family at mealtime and for playing cards after dark.

setting out dinner at the homestay
befriending a cute local
cacao tree

We also spent several hours on a guided walk with one of the family through neighboring rice fields and jungle. This was quite scenic and well worthwhile to understand a bit more about what daily life is like in rural Indonesia. Farming occurs anywhere possible, and while rice is the most apparent crop, lots of others are cultivated: corn, chilis, vegetables, and tobacco. We made friends with several local dogs, sampled raw roasted cacao, drank too much coffee, and watched some of the endangered ebony leaf monkeys that inhabit Lombok’s forests. We observed – and confirmed later over a 12-hour bus ride – that Indonesians can survive indefinitely purely on cigarettes and coffee. Intermittent small portions of rice are a bonus and seemingly optional. We sucked down water and came close to starvation while our guide meandered along complacently without any nourishment beyond these two staples.

Gunung Rinjani pokes up over palm trees and rice fields
intricately irrigated terraces make flat rice paddies on the hillsides
making bamboo stakes for planting
I got an amused look: “why on earth would you want a photo of this?”
a small waterfall in a cut between farmland
locals love the opportunity to take photos with us travelers
local kids playing at the waterfall
collecting firewood and cow feed from the nearby hills

We stayed only two nights as that was all that was available, though it’s just as well as we were ready to move on. As before with Rinjani we struggled a bit to decide our next move. Lombok offered several other possible destinations but we weren’t really feeling like sticking around; we wanted to push further eastward to the island of Flores and the mecca of diving at nearby Komodo that had us very excited. How to get there wasn’t entirely clear, however. The target destination of Labuanbajo on Flores lay some 380 kilometers (240 mi) due east, across the long and fairly empty island of Sumbawa. Going from point A to B in Indonesia isn’t quite like travel anywhere else – a few hours distance in the States can easily be several days here. Flights for this leg exist, but at the last minute (and during what is apparently high season at Komodo) they were very expensive or sold out. Boats make this trip as well, a four-night journey in cramped quarters. Finally, overland buses (with ferries to connect the dots between islands) are the cheapest choice. We considered the boat option but ultimately decided we’d rather push through to Flores more quickly by bus. Boats aren’t exactly fast here.

our Lombok-to-Flores journey begins

Our travel began from the homestay down to the nearest sizable town on the backs of motorbikes (an ojek is a motorbike taxi and is quite common). There we got some tickets, waited, and caught the bus as it traveled towards East Lombok. Within a couple hours we (and the bus) were on a ferry headed to Sumbawa, the next island over. This was a decent size car ferry and over the couple hour trip we were entertained (and only slightly appalled) by the rustic conditions on board: passengers lying down in any available corner, chickens wandering around, simple meals being cooked by families on mats. It was a modest preview of the longer ferry ride we would take the next day.

Then it was back on the road in the bus for ten hours across dusty Sumbawa. When building this cross-island stretch it seems that the Indonesians must have already used up all of the straight road sections in their inventory, leaving only curved pieces to work with. We swayed vigorously left and right, back and forth, up and down the whole way. Happily this sort of road gives the Indonesian bus drivers ample opportunity to practice their favorite activities of honking and performing hair-raising passes.

Sumbawa whizzes by

Fortunately our bus was neither crowded nor smelly which made the trip far more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. We arrived in Bima, Sumbawa’s eastern city, sometime late in the evening. We found a grungy hotel room and wandered around the nearby city park to find some delicious street food and an interesting reception from the locals which ranged from the standard chorus of “hellos” from children, stares and comments from adults (Westerners being unusual in Bima) and some friendly conversation with the rare individual confident with English. Our journey resumed after six hours of sleep by means of another ojek ride, a rusted out skeleton of a minibus, and more ojek to reach the port of Sape.

probably at least 60% of the original bus is still there

From Sape to Labuanbajo – our destination – there is a ferry that runs once a day if it’s in working condition (it was). It’s a 6-8 hour trip between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. This ferry was quite similar to the first, but more crowded and hotter. People were packed tightly into stuffy compartments, lying around on mats and cardboard, and nested in any shaded corner on the open upper deck. Chickens hunted around for crumbs and various mystery liquids oozed around on flat surfaces. It had the appearance of a refugee camp, but this is normal life here in Indonesia. We sought fresh air and so stayed up on the top deck trying to dodge the sun. Elaine eventually had the great idea, inspired by locals who had brought tarps and blankets, to make a sunshade using our clothesline and her shawl. We found a corner, built a small fort, and waited out the journey on the steel deck while gorgeous blue waters and green-brown islands slowly passed by.



passing the time hiding on the deck of the ferry

After 34 hours of travel we pulled into the seaside town of Labuanbajo, Flores late in the afternoon with all our body parts and belongings. Success! The whole trip (including our room in Bima) cost less than $50 apiece. Being really excited about doing some amazing diving in Komodo National Park we shook off our travel fatigue, dropped our luggage, and headed off through the town to explore our options for getting in the water. We were certainly not disappointed – but that’s for the next post!

Labuanbajo sunset

Gili Air: Sunsets, Sharks, and Urchins, Oh My!

We have taken up a new hobby and completely immersed ourselves (pun intended) this past week in the Gili Islands: scuba diving! I have done 10 dives and Gregor 11, the reason for this discrepancy will be revealed shortly. We have been down as far as 30 meters, seen an octopus changing colors, followed a school of big snapper around a shipwreck, dodged spawning titan triggerfish, played pass with an egg yolk underwater and generally have had the time of our lives! Our only regret is not having amazing photos of the rich marine life and undersea landscapes to share with you – we have a waterproof camera but we were often deeper than its 15m rating and we were already quite busy learning new things pretty much every moment. So enable your imagination and/or just look at the numerous sunset photos we have instead.

an outrigger at low tide and sunset

We had targeted Gili Air (an island off of Lombok in Indonesia) a little while ago as a good place to take the plunge into dive certification (I’m sorry, it’s just too easy). To get there we had a long but fairly easy travel day flying from Hong Kong through Singapore to Denpasar on Bali and spent an unremarkable somewhat dingy night in the Kuta neighborhood. This wasn’t the most enamoring introduction to Indonesia but happily this was rectified the following day when we caught a boat from Bali out to the Gilis. There are three islands here, each with their own shtick. Gili Air, which means “water island” so named because it has a source of fresh water, is best known as the island to go to if you want to dive, whereas Gili Meno is the honeymoon island and Gili Trawangan is the party island. Our boat happily dropped a bunch of meatheads and Jersey Shore beachaholics off at Gili T, and then brought the more low key remainder to Gili Air.

Gili Air waterfront
sunset with Gili Meno on the horizon

We have nothing but good things to say about Gili Air. It’s a small flat island with no cars and everything within easy reach (walking around its beach perimeter takes less than two hours). Gorgeous aquamarine waters gently lap on coral beaches and multicolor outriggers while inland, chickens, cows, cats, and monitor lizards stroll around under palm trees. No ugly concrete towers here, just modest homes, some fancy bungalows, and charming guesthouses. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, as are the locals. It’s clean and calm. The weather was just perfect – 30C and mostly sunny each day – which we especially treasured after melting in Vietnam and getting drenched in Hong Kong. Great food options are everywhere, from cheap Indonesian fare (mixed rice plates, satay, curries) to fresh grilled fish and excellent Western choices like sandwiches and salads. I don’t think I could dream up a better place to hang out in between demanding training sessions and exhilarating dives!

a plate of nasi campur from Moeslim Warung: 20,000 IDR or $1.50. super tasty
horses are used on Gili Air to haul stuff (and lazy folks) around
view from the pool we had access to
this sunset photo has a cat
grilled fish in banana leaf

Soon after arriving we showed up at our dive center of choice and before we knew it we were in front of a TV watching PADI training videos (outside on a cushion near the beach!) and in the pool with full gear the next morning. Our scuba journey was guided by CJ, a kind-hearted, patient instructor from the US who has been living here for the past 9 months. She led us through skills in the pool that seemed really intimidating at first but turned out to be easy with a little practice, like removing your mask or regulator underwater. Our first dive came just as quickly, backrolling off the boat at the aptly named Turtle Heaven.

here is where we had to sit and study.
7 Seas’ beautiful outrigger dive boat!


Dive one was fun but we both felt rather wobbly and uncertain in our new environment. For non-divers, a big aspect of being in control while diving is maintaining the appropriate level of buoyancy for whatever depth you’re at. This involves a combination of inflating/deflating a vest you wear as well as breathing control (your lungs make a big difference) and it’s not entirely intuitive, so we were bouncing around a fair bit. Our second dive went way better – still far from perfect, but we were in control enough to enjoy ourselves and really be amazed at how awesome diving is! CJ did a great job focusing on the most important skills and mindsets. She’s also a yoga instructor and I think that helps – there are a lot of parallels in terms of body and breath control, and remaining focused and relaxed. Unless you’re clueless or reckless it’s no fun feeling out of control in potentially hazardous conditions, and she got us feeling informed and comfortable with ease.

on the sundeck of the Mutiara Hitam after our first dive!


typical view from the boat after a dive near Gili Meno

When we decided to do the Advanced certification – because we were having such a great time learning! – we had to choose 5 dives to improve our skills. We chose buoyancy, wreck diving, deep diving, navigation and night diving. My only previous experience diving was in the Whitsundays in Australia and my friend who was a certified diver did a night dive, which I (Elaine) was not able to do, and raved about it. So I was very excited to do one here. Plus we had been hearing rumors around the dive shop that there was a coconut octopus where we would be diving that only came out at night. Coconut octopus carry a coconut shell around with them and when they feel threatened they hide inside it. This one, though, had been spotted carrying a discarded cup under its arm by the handle and hiding inside that! Also, there was a little hole in the cup where it would peek through, how amazing! Of course we were dying to see this live and so geared up for our night dive at sunset with a couple other folks joining us.

Elaine and CJ getting ready for a dive

The “house reef” just outside the dive center is amazing, we dove there earlier in the week and that was where we were going to do our night dive. However, the tides here in Indonesia are extreme, as are the currents, so low tide means really low tide. The tide on our night dive was low, so it required a bit of scrambling over dead coral to get up to waist deep so we could begin the dive. As we entered the water it was very clear how unpleasant this task was. CJ never wears booties, but had twisted her ankle earlier in the week so was wearing them for this dive. The rest of us – Gregor and I and two others from Chile – were barefoot and struggling on the sharp coral with heavy tanks. CJ managed to navigate the plateaus and valleys with relative ease, but behind her we were all kind of flopping around in calf deep water wondering when we would be able to swim.

At this point you may be thinking, this is not worth it. Why the hell would anyone put up with all this so they could go shine a light on some fish in the scary abyss? I hear you, but did I mention the coconut octopus? So we trudged on and about a minute into this unpleasant entry I (being first in the line of the 4 of us) would just put my hand down and kind of crab-walk until I could swim. That was pretty slick until about 9 seconds later when my left hand came down on a sea urchin. Uhhh…. I pulled my hand out of the water and shined my flashlight on it and sticking out of my pinky and ring finger were about 12 black spines. At this point (clueless) I thought maybe it was no big deal, I could just pull them out and we could be on our way, but sort of shocked I sat down and – wait for it – sat on another sea urchin. By now I had alerted the group that I had been spiked in the hand and decided that it was time to head for shore. As I walked past them I indicated that I thought I had also sat on one and could sort of feel the flashlight beams on my butt as Gregor involuntarily gasped, “Oh God”. I decided I needed to quickly exit the water and figure out what to do next. Gregor was not far behind me, thankfully and the rest of our group was cautiously wading back to shore. In his calm, confident, triage voice that I hope to never hear directed towards me again, Gregor expertly checked with CJ to confirm he could remove this heavy tank from my back and did so and I stumbled back to the dive shop, thankfully very close to where we were, all while my my fingers were getting numb and dark and I had quills in my butt, which I had not seen directly and did not care to.

By the time I climbed the stairs the group had pretty much caught up and the dive center was having a staff meeting which thankfully included a nurse they have on staff that CJ called over. “She should sit down she might pass out,” I am pretty sure I heard her say and I thought, ‘that’s a good idea, though I should lie on my stomach because, again, I have quills sticking out of my butt’. Somewhat of a spectacle now, the nurse was inspecting the damage along with Matt, one of the other instructors. They are both French and for some reason when French people speak English it sounds immediately believable and calming to me, which seemed great because Matt said he knew exactly what to do about the situation! “Merveilleux!” I thought, these people are great. Then came his solution, delivered in a very nice French accent, “First you remove the big ones, then you take beer bottle and with your finger and – smash smash smash! Very quick for to break up ze spines. They are very brittle so you must smash into little pieces so they dissolve. Very painful, but in 2 or 3 days, no more!” I laughed, but the nurse said, “No, this is true, we will do this?” Oh my God these people are serious! I am in Indonesia with poisonous spines sticking out of my hand and butt and people want to hit me with a beer bottle!

— Ok so quick backstory- Gregor and I went to the “Dokter” yes, that is how they spelled Doctor on the sign, to get some advil the other day and were greeted by a 20-something just beaming and who could not wait to tell us how exciting his day had been as he had just given a German tourist 3 stitches from a bike accident! So, in my current, spiny predicament under normal circumstances I probably would have sought professional medical help, but armed with that knowledge I figured I would take my chances with the French nurse and the beer bottle. —

So along came 2 beer bottles, one empty one for the nurse and one full one for me (thank you) and after brief nudity, creative poses for getting a skin tight wetsuit off while trying not to dislodge any overlooked quills and some oohs and aaahs from the crowd at either success or failure of spine removal ensued, it was time for the smashing. “I am sorry,” the nurse said before she began. Ok, so actually the beer bashing was not that bad. I think if Matt had done it it would have been. He said he had about 100 spines in his foot in another country and when he went to the ER they used a hammer, but as he pointed out this was much cheaper. When she was done, voila! I could sit down! Quite amazing, actually. My hand still hurt, but not really that bad. I took some advil, went to bed and was back at the dive shop at 8:30AM ready to do our wreck dive.

(butt spines not pictured)
classy horses-on-the-beach-at-sunset… I bet this is a better photo than they got

Everything else went off without a hitch, and one week later we each have two certifications, 8 hours of dive time (just the start of many more, I think), and a new appreciation for life under da sea (cue Sebastian the crab). As a poor substitute for actual photos, here’s a list of noteworthy critters we saw which you can google if you like. Also imagine fields and pinnacles of corals, innumerable tiny neon colored reef fish, lots of squishy non-coral things that also claim to be animals… and a great bunch of people, both instructors and other customers, to enjoy it all with!

CJ our instructor
view of the beachfront bars from out in the shallow low tide
another sunset! this one with locals digging around in the low tide shallows

No obligation at all to read this list! Only there if you want to nerd out on sea creatures, and/or get envious and come to Indonesia too.

  • Countless angelfish, surgeonfish, 20170629_203054.jpgbutterflyfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, and moorish idols
  • Green and hawksbill turtles cruising around, eating, and snoozing on the bottom
  • Scorpionfish and lionfish
  • A mantis shrimp scuttling around like mantis shrimp do
  • Lots of types of clownfish hanging out in their anemones
  • A rough tail shrimp, a coral banded cleaner shrimp, and an anemone shrimp. These guys are tiny and half transparent so thanks other people who spotted them, no chance we would have
  • Puffers: blackspotted, immaculate, and some really huge map pufferfish
  • Cute little spaghetti garden eels
  • Several day octopus hiding out in dark corners, including one that changed both color and texture while we revisited it during some underwater navigation practice
  • A pair of yellowtail barracuda
  • A blacktip shark, nicely spotted by Elaine
  • A whitetip shark (only briefly)
  • Moray eels big and small chilling out in their holes: yellowmargin, blackspotted, reticulated, and giant
  • Sea feather stars of all sizes and colors
  • Comb jellyfish (with the little multicolored lights!)
  • Nudibranch: swollen phyllidia and banana (big!) to name a couple
  • Coral groupers, bluefin trevally, golden trevally, amberjack, and a big fat double-lined mackerel
  • A couple types of trumpetfish and cornetfish
  • A big school of scissortail fusilier encircling us
  • A batfish (spadefish) lolling on its side while being cleaned by bluestreak wrasse
  • Lots of other stuff we don’t know how to recognize yet…



Specifics: Gili Air is a Muslim majority place and we were there through the end of Ramadan, which meant that the locals were celebrating and most everything was closed, but it was okay. It was nice to see the local places opening up when everyone went back to work. The mosque that was a couple hundred meters from our room was bumpin’.

We stayed at Villa Karang Homestay for $16/night which included breakfast. The room was great except the bed was a bit musty because it’s pretty humid all around Bali, apparently this is a common problem. Shower was part saltwater which is typical. “Homestay” is a bit of a stretch – they are a set of budget rooms affiliated with the beachfront resort by the same name, so no character but you do get to join in on the pool and buffet breakfast. The breakfast I thought was great, but Gregor was disenchanted by the repetitive whiny island music they played and the temperature of the pancakes. Sad!

We dove with 7 Seas and can’t say enough good things about them. Perfect combo of chill and professional, and while we really liked CJ our instructor we would have been more than happy to train with any one of their staff – all super nice and helpful people. Thank you 7 Seas for being so awesome!

The best food we found was: Warung Moeslim for cheap and delicious nasi campur (soft c like a “ch”, mixed rice with tasty stuff); Easy Gilli Warung and Lemongrass Cafe for other local stuff like curries; Le Sate Bar for… sat(e/ay); and Shark Bites for a range of really good western dishes from cheap lunch pasta on up, plus good coffee and super nice owners. Shark Bites and Moeslim became our go-to’s while there (thanks CJ for the pointers!). If you’re walking around after sunset try some spicy grilled corn on the cob from one of the cart vendors.

Make sure you get to the western beach for sunset(s). There are plenty of waterfront bars to relax at that aren’t very expensive. Mowie’s has surprisingly awesome jackfruit tacos (sounds weird, right?).

Savoring Vietnam in Hanoi

Heading to Hanoi – our last stop in our south to north Vietnamese adventure – we were approaching the 2 month point in our travels. (Well, really more than that counting our drive cross-country but that’s different). We were both feeling weary, in need of some low-key days to recuperate, so we ended up deciding to hang out in the city for the final week of our visa. This was a really good decision because we were even more tired than we realized and we’ve spent the week here fighting off a cold, exploring in between resting and dodging the heat.

We grabbed a very comfy – but still cheap by Western standards – room in Hanoi’s Old Quarter for a couple nights to offset the discomfort of our Cát Bà housing. This let us explore the narrow windy streets easily, visiting the extensive weekend night market and drinking cheap, sort-of cold bia hoi with the locals. We enjoyed simply walking around and looking at the people and shops, with unique and colorful sights everywhere. The Old Quarter is stuffed with cute narrow buildings (at one point taxes were based on the width of street-front property so skinny long “tube” houses became the norm), each colorful and adorned with equally colorful locals and their pets.





tiniest salon. You’re seeing the whole thing here.
grabbing some fresh bánh rán – little donut balls with mung bean paste

We love to try new foods when traveling and one of our favorite discoveries yet has been cà phê trứng: strong Vietnamese coffee with a foamy sweetened egg topping. It’s addictively delicious and there was at least one day in our stay where we went back for more in the afternoon. This is one of those rare examples where we found the popular opinion on who makes the best to actually be true: Giảng Cafe in the Old Quarter was better than anything else we tried and the cheapest too at $1 a coffee.

cà phê trứng – delicious egg coffee

After our 2 night stay in a comfy guesthouse we ventured outside of the touristy area to stay in an airbnb. This was great – we got a roomy and comfortable apartment with a laundry machine in the building (wahoo, hand-washed is only so good!) within walking distance of several sights and a great little produce market. This gave us not only the opportunity to rest comfortably, as we sorely needed, but also make some delicious breakfasts such as fresh duck eggs on hot baguettes and my own attempt at Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk (which tastes like melted coffee ice cream yum).

buying mangoes with a handheld balance
the eggs here are so good!
breakfast with homemade chili sauce sold in old water bottles

Talking about Hanoi, or really anywhere in Vietnam, would be incomplete without including street food. It’s so hard to walk around here and not ask for every tasty thing you see every couple of steps. It’s not all Vietnamese, either – we had some excellent Chinese noodles and a solid doner kebab in our ventures. It’s the Vietnamese that’s the most exciting of course, be it soup, fried something, or grilled meat. Our favorite – and perhaps the best street food we’ve had yet on our trip – was the bún chả we found in an alley near our apartment. Bún chả is a brothy vermicelli noodle dish with grilled pork (bacon and meatballs) and the stuff we found was out of this world, not only by our opinion but as evidenced by how busy the little nest of plastic stools was and how quickly the pile of pork diminished over lunch hour. Yes, of course we went back the next day.

all the fixings of bún chả



Another noteworthy street dining experience occurred when we were sitting in a wide alley on tiny plastic chairs, surrounded by dozens of customers similarly situated up and down the street. Suddenly everything went into chaotic motion with staff and locals running around grabbing tables and dishes, barely refraining from shouting. It took us a couple adrenaline-boosted moments of confusion to realize that they were clearing the street in response to an imminent police sweep! There must be specific areas that have restrictions on tables in the roadway because we saw plenty elsewhere in plain sight of the authorities.

this sidewalk setup is far from unique: everything from hand fans to industrial blowers are used to keep the coals hot
it’s 2pm and it’s hot – everyone is napping
Caption naming showdown: Broom Vroom, Pedal-duster, sweep&beep, bristle-mobile. You can choose your favorite. Or come up with your own. Whatever.

Among our ventures was a walk up around Trúc Bạch Lake (where Senator McCain splashed down under a parachute in ‘67) to a “cat cafe” at Elaine’s behest. This facility involves paying a fee so that one can sit in a room smelling of cats and wait to see if any of them can be bothered to wander over to you and cuddle. I apparently do not have a knack for this because while Elaine attracted some rather cute and adorable companions the only ones that eventually chose to hang out with me were the desperate, tatty individuals with no other option. Ah well, everyone deserves a good scratch behind the ears.

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We took an evening out at a trendy restaurant in the north of Hanoi where you sit on the floor at squat little tables and dine on a range of unique foods. The place was recommended by a popular food blogger in Hanoi and did not disappoint – the food was great and the atmosphere was fun as we were the only Westerners surrounded by a rowdy work group on one side and a large family on the other. Another evening was spent quite differently, hanging out in our apartment enjoying a nice bottle of French wine – the first we’ve had in our travels, sought out from a little nearby store – and a pretty solid delivery pizza which somehow made it straight to our apartment door in no time despite my uncertainty with our address and the fact that there is a big lock on the front gate. Thanks, Hanoi!

smoked duck salad and grilled pork ribs, both fantastic

As far as official sightseeing in Hanoi, we did some but not all. The Temple of Literature was more or less next door to our apartment and so was inexcusable to not visit. We checked out an old restored tube house in the Old Quarter, spent a couple hours in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. We didn’t make it to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum or surrounding palace area because by the time we were ready to do so on Friday we realized it was closed that day. Overall, though, we were more entertained simply walking around, and our recovery (plus the heat!) inhibited more vigorous touristing.


lotus blossoms at the Temple of Literature


wartime posters in the Vietnam Women’s Museum

Having spent time in both Saigon and Hanoi we can offer an inexpert comparison. Saigon is definitely the more modern, which cuts both ways: it’s cleaner and slicker than Hanoi and the cranking economy is palpable, fueling a healthy growth balanced by manicured gardens and well-lit tree-lined boulevards. Inevitably, however, this means it has lost some of the colorful character that permeates nearly every building and street corner in Hanoi. This aspect is most concentrated in the Old Quarter, for which Saigon has no match, but really is all over Hanoi (excepting intermittent areas of Soviet style red-and-concrete). Both cities have a wealth of amazing food and it would take us far more time than we’ve had to officially call a winner on that front. As for beer, Saigon has some impressively good craft brews but Hanoi has the edge on cheap lager between bia hoi stalls, Bia Ha Noi, and Trúc Bạch (all better, in my opinion, than Bia Saigon). Both are similar in terms of walkability (rather appalling, keep your head on a swivel) but Saigon cabs were more consistently cheap. Both have good coffee though Hanoi has the unique cà phê trứng. Hanoi was hotter and grayer.

So do we have a favorite? Probably Hanoi, by a whisker or two of Uncle Ho’s beard.

engaged couples wait to take wedding photos at a popular site – photos are taken before the wedding and often there are many couples in the same place at once using the same photographer
visiting the restored wooden “ancient house” in the Old Quarter

I write Saigon because nobody in southern Vietnam calls it Ho Chi Minh City. On this topic, the cultural transition between north and south was both more distinct and abrupt than I expected. As soon as we crossed over the old border north of Hue we noticed this shift in naming of the old southern capital. We also no longer heard praise for the US or stories of how such-and-such a relative worked with the American forces during the war, both common sentiments in the south. We’ve never felt unwelcome in Vietnam – far from it – but the change was noticeable. After thinking about it a little this 40 year old divide probably lingers due to (at least) a couple factors: lifestyle and geography. Families generally are rooted and tight knit, and Vietnam is quite narrow at the center and broad at the north/south extents, so there isn’t much movement and mixing.


grabbing a new bia hoi keg

Regardless of north vs south, city or countryside, coastline or mountains, we are sad to be leaving Vietnam! For us it has been a perfect match of culture, scenery, and food. We’ve gotten quite used to being here over the past month so it’s going to be rather jarring to dive into a new country, especially since we’re leaving mainland Southeast Asia where we’ve spent our whole trip thus far. Tạm biệt và cảm ơn, Vietnam – goodbye and thanks! We hope to return soon.

this little girl had me take her picture and then she gave me a hug.