The end of 2017: Europe

Our last post took us through the Baltic states up to November 3rd and the six month mark of our trip. Now, I’ll run down how we spent the rest of 2017 traveling through Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. I promise I’m working to getting the blog more current for our last couple months in South America!

Leaving Lithuania we took an overnight bus to the port town of Gdańsk to begin twelve days traveling in Poland. As the starting point of World War II and, in many ways, the epicenter of the Holocaust, much of our time in Poland focused on these subjects. That being said, we also experienced a lot that modern Poland has to offer. In Gdańsk, Ryan and I participated in a half marathon and 5k run that let us see a non-touristy side to the city. Our kebab obsession also began here. What more could a budget conscience traveler want than this filling and cheap meal? Behind the train station we found a great viewpoint from atop some old WWII bunkers; now a park and museum called Krzyż Milenijny.

At the finish line

Finish line at Gdańsk half marathon and 5k.

Kebab. Drool.

All across Poland we found incredibly modern and well done museums and Gdańsk was no exception. Here we spent two afternoons at the Museum of the Second World War and the European Solidarity Centre. In Europe we also began seeking out the free days and hours offered by many museums so we could visit them and stay in budget. We also took a daytrip to Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in 1406. Malbork is the largest castle in the world by land area and the museum entry included a really great audio guide!

From Gdańsk we continued on to Warsaw. We toured more immersive museums like the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Warsaw city center was quite imposing with its Soviet architecture, but our AirBnB was near the bike and walking path along the Vistula River that was quite nice.

Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

Our last destination in Poland was Krakow. Atop the hill in the center of town is the Wawel Castle and Cathedral where many Kings of Poland are buried. We spent a day walking around the Old Town and Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. From here we also took a day trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp. While difficult, it was a very meaningful trip and I strongly believe in the mission of the museum to keep this history in our collective memory.

The infamous “Work Sets You Free” sign in Auschwitz.

The end of the rail line that transported cattle cars full of people to the gas chambers.

On a lighter note, we also found the Krakow Pinball Museum. For a few bucks we drank beers and played unlimited games on over 100 pinball machines from across the decades. The last highlight of Krakow for me was seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine painting on display at the National Museum of Krakow.

Next we continued by overnight train to Ukraine and the city of Lviv. Lviv is a totally cute city in western Ukraine close to the Polish border. It was full of these really innovative and fun themed restaurants created by a local company called !Fest. We went to an underground partisan bunker themed bar called Kryivka off the main square. To enter you had to knock on an unmarked door in the back of an alley and proclaim “Slava Ukraine” to gain entrance. After making sure we weren’t Russian spies, the doorman handed over a shot of honey vodka and then let us in. It was totally kitschy but still a lot of fun. There were also a lot of breweries and beer joints here that we enjoyed.

Lviv Beer Museum and pub.

Inside the partisan bunker bar in Lviv.

Next we headed over to Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. There was really so much to do here and its a very lively city. From our hostel we walked all over town. There are a LOT of churches in Kyiv. We went to a few but spent the most time at the Pechersk Lavra, or cave monastery. This Russian Orthodox Church and Monastery was built atop catacombs filled with the bodies of saints and underground chapels. We saw a lot of little old ladies praying and even a few mummy looking saints in their final resting places. We were in Kyiv over Thanksgiving and celebrated the day by gorging ourselves on Georgian food (see my last post) and going to the ballet to see The Snow Queen at the National Opera of Ukraine.

Sunset and the Motherland Monument in Kyiv.

Typical cafeteria food in Eastern Europe.

The main feature of our time in Kyiv was our day tour to Chernobyl. This is just one of those subjects that is endlessly fascinating and had been on our “must do” list since we started planning this around the world trip. Not the most likely tourist destination, there are now a number of tour companies that offer a day trip to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone to see the sight of one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in human history.

The sarcophagus covering Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl.

Ryan and I both have a passing interest in urban exploration, one of our first dates was wandering around the abandoned Fulton Gas Works plant in Richmond before a round of frisbee golf, so visiting Chernobyl checked a lot of boxes for us. While the villages and towns inside the exclusion zone have now been abandoned, I was really surprised to see how many people are still working and living (at least part-time) here. We toured through Pripyat, the town where power plant workers and their families lived, and saw how the forest has begun to retake the area. We were able to go quite close to the reactor now covered by a brand new “sarcophagus” where the cleanup effort will continue for decades. While very safe to visit for the day, we did see a few radiation hot spots on our tour that sent the Geiger counters wailing.

The original sign entering Chernobyl town.

Abandoned fair grounds in Pripyat inside the exclusion zone.

Stained glass from the port of Pripyat town.

Getting a radiation check before we can leave the exclusion zone.

Lastly in Ukraine we visited the Black Sea town of Odessa. We saw some famous sites around town like the Opera House and the Potemkin Steps. I know its supposed to be really nice here in the summer but the weather was a bit dreary in November. That being said, we did have some excellent food and drink and the highlight of our stay was a private tour inside the Odessa Catacombs. Not real catacombs, these tunnels were originally limestone mines used to build the city of Odessa that have been repurposed and reused over the last century for everything from a Soviet fallout shelter to a gangster hideaway.

Inside our tour of the Odessa Catacombs. Thank goodness for our guide; we didn’t want to get lost down there!

Ok, I’ve only got four (or five depending on how you count…) countries to get us to the end of 2017. Thanks for sticking with me through this marathon blog post!

From Ukraine we took the bus to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (pronounced kish-ih-now). Moldova is actually a big wine producer and so we took a day trip to the Cricova wine caves. Like in Odessa, there are old limestone mine tunnels here that are now used for wine storage and production. The constant temperature underground makes it an ideal spot. The Cricova tour was super professional. Our group was driven around the tunnels on a little tram making stops to see different parts of wine production before going to our tasting. One of my favorite parts was stopping at the small theater to watch Cricova’s promotional video. Its super cheesy and I am obsessed with it. Watch it here.

The other big thing we did in Moldova was take a day trip to the breakaway region of Transnistria. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this Russian-speaking region opposed the potential merging of Moldova and Romania and an armed conflict broke out as they declared independence from Moldova. Now a “frozen conflict,” Transnistria isn’t a recognized country, but is essentially operating as such. To visit we took a shared van from the capital and had to go through an immigration checkpoint to get our day pass. Walking around the main city, Tiraspol, was like stepping back in time. They have their own currency (including some funny looking plastic coins) and all around are remnants from the Soviet Union that are still standing, while in the rest of the former bloc most of these things have been destroyed or moved. It made for a really interesting day.

Religious building and military monument in Tiraspol.

Visiting Transinistria can feel like a step back in time.

Next up: Romania! Here we really started to get into the Christmas spirit. It snowed a bit while we were in Brasov and we saw our first big Christmas tree and market in the main square in the Old Town. From Brasov we went to tour Bran Castle. Bran was not home to Vlad the Impaler (the real-life Dracula) but it did inspire Bram Stoker’s descriptions of Dracula’s Castle. Built in the 1300s to defend Transylvania, the castle is now a museum donated by Romania’s former royal family. It was really foggy when we visited. The spooky weather was great for a Dracula sighting but not so great for photos! Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Also in Bucharest we went to the Christmas Market a couple of times and enjoyed mulled wine and a tasty grilled Chimney Cake called Kürtoskalàcs. On our last afternoon we visited the Muzeul Antipa, or Romania’s Natural History Museum. The museum was founded in 1834 and is full of floor-to-ceiling dioramas of stuffed animals and habitats from around the globe. We went thinking it would be a bit kitschy, but the museum ended up being really enjoyable.

At this point we’re now into December and we flew from Bucharest to Athens to meet up with my parents and travel around Greece with them for fourteen days. We took an epic road trip around the Peloponnese peninsula spending two nights in the seaside town of Nafplio and visiting the ancient ruins of Mycenae, Epidaurious and Olympia. After stopping at ancient Olympia, we continued on away from the Peloponnese to spend two nights in Meteora. Meteora is known for Greek monasteries dating back to the 1300s that were built high into the rock formations. You can hike between the seven main monasteries on a mix of trails and road for amazing views of the area.

Can you spot five of the Meteora monasteries?

Obligatory family photo at the Parthenon.

After a marathon 4 day road trip, we drove back to Athens for a few more days to take in the city. Since we got into Europe, we’ve been stying in more AirBnBs, which has given this part of our trip a residential feel and the ability to cook more. Our location in Athens was perfect. We were literally steps from the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. We were also staying right next to Filopappou Hill, which was a park full of walking trails and the city’s best overlook with a full view of the Acropolis.

I can’t recommend visiting Greece in the winter enough. The museums and archeological sights are all half price during the off season and the weather was still stunning. While not warm enough for a swim or anything it was more than pleasant to spend our days sightseeing.

Enjoying the Greek sunshine in Santorini.


Island hopping on the Blue Star Ferries.

Lastly, we had to visit a couple Greek Islands to complete our tour of Greece. We stayed in an amazing historic cave house in the village of Oia on the island of Santorini and had the perfect postcard-worthy view of the white village and caldera from our patio. I drank too much wine and Ryan got to do a trail run from one end of the island to the the other. Happy times. We spent three relaxing days here before moving on, via ferry, to Naxos. Naxos was a much more down-to-earth island with even fewer tourists and a quaint port. Naxos was the kind of town where our waitress at dinner always came by with a complimentary carafe of wine. Needless to say we come back the next night.

After island hopping, our group traveled on to Italy, parting ways for a few days before reuniting in Rome for Christmas. And I am almost done with this epically long blog post. Ryan and I went down to Sorrento for a few days so we could hike the Sentiero degli Dei or “Path of the Gods” above the Amalfi Coast. We did this amazing walk as an out-and-back hike from Positano so we could make it a little longer and take in all the views. We also did another day hike directly from Sorrento to the town of Massa Lubrense following a trail of painted tile markers that I found utterly charming.

Hiking between villages on the Amalfi Coast.

Then, we headed to Rome for the holidays. On Christmas Day we were joined by Ryan’s brother and sister-in-law. The next day my parents continued on their Italian adventure without us and we traveled with Matthew and Nikki in Italy for the next week in Rome, Florence and Milan. We took in all the quintessential sights from the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican in Rome to the Duomo in Florence. We had some of our best food in Florence and Matthew and Nikki introduced us to the Rick Steve’s Europe audio guide app. Wish we’d known about these free walking tours sooner! In Milan we went to the famous Stadio San Siro to see an Inter Milan football game and ring in the New Year together!

Even the rainiest day in Rome didn’t stop us!

Crostini Misti.

Finally, we made it through 2017. On New Year’s Day we separated from Matthew and Nikki. They continued on to Venice for a few days before returning home and Ryan and I went to stay in Perugia for the week. I studied abroad in Perugia in 2007, so visiting my Italian home away from home brought back a lot of fond memories. This medieval hilltop town has both changed and stayed exactly the same in so many ways. Staying in one place for a week also gave us a much needed break to be lazy and plan the final four months of our trip. From here we were able to plan out our treks in Patagonia and flesh out our time in South America.

And finally on January 10th we left Italy and flew to Marrakech, Morocco. We weren’t totally done with Europe yet as we also visited Spain, but I’ll leave Morocco and Spain for another post!

Bowling through Laos

There are a lot of reasons not to travel in Laos during the rainy season. The best laid plans can be derailed by a monsoon. The roads can get really muddy. Its shockingly humid. But, in my humble opinion, the beauty outweighs these obstacles. It’s cheaper and less crowded. And I’ve never in my life seen a green so vibrant as the rice fields after a rain shower. Our twenty days in Laos were magical and I hope to return.

Rice field in Xiang Khouang province

Luang Prabang. We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we’re doing a lot of our travels by ground transport, the convenience of a one hour flight won out over a 24 hour bus over mountain roads. The old town of Luang Prabang is an UNESCO site filled to the brim with temples, bakeries, restaurants and shops. The French influence is really felt here. This was our first stop in Indochina and has been interesting to see the French food/architecture throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The town is situated on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong and smaller Nam Khan rivers. Its a real treat to wander through LP and our inexpensive guesthouse had a lot of perks: excellent banana pancakes, a fresh fruit drink each afternoon and two adorable puppies who patrolled the patio. Across the street was Manda de Laos, an upscale Lao restaurant where food is served next to a beautiful Lotus pond. Thanks to a generous send-off gift from my former DC co-workers, we had a wonderful date night here. On the opposite end of the food spectrum we also went to an all-you-can-eat $2 buffet in an alleyway.

We took a songthaew (benches in the bed of a pickup truck) to Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is known for bright blue pools of water because of mineral deposits. Because we’d had a big rain the day before the water was moving too fast to have the turquoise color, but the falls were impressive nonetheless. We also spent an afternoon bowling at one of only 3 or 4 bowling alleys in the entire country. It had been years since either of us had gone bowling and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!


Kuang Si Falls

Phonsavan. From Luang Prabang we took a bus to the town of Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province. This area, known as the Plain of Jars, has thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered in dozens of sights around the region. Xieng Khouang is also known as one of the most heavily bombed areas by the United States during the Vietnam War. We visited sites of the “Secret War” with our guide, Mr. Vang. The legacy of the war is still visible today in bomb craters across the landscape and thousands of unexploded ordinance that continue to injure and kill in the community to this day.

Vientiane. The capital of Laos. Unlike other big cities in the region, Vientiane doesn’t have a ton going on. For me, that’s kind of the charm of Laos. There’s a nice night market and strip of restaurants along the Mekong. We found some really good and cheap ex-pat food. The “sights” like the historic Sisaket Temple and Patuxay Monument can all be seen in about half a day. At this point in the trip we needed a place to spend a day with good internet to plan out the next couple months and Vientiane was a great location. We also knew there was another bowling alley here! We can now proudly say we have bowled in at least half of the alleys in Laos.


Wat Si Muang

Pakse and the Bolevan Plateau. From Vientiane we took the “King of Bus” (see on our instagram!) overnight to the town of Pakse and launched into a 3-day motorbike loop around the Bolevan Plateau. This is a popular backpacker loop and the Bolevan Plateau is known for beautiful scenery, waterfalls and coffee. The Plateau is also a higher elevation and so was an escape from the heat and humidity. We visited the ancient city of Champasak and Wat Phou. This Wat (temple) is from the Angkor period and was actually built before Angkor Wat. Our first full day on the loop we drove through rain and fog, obscuring the waterfalls. However, it felt great to be off the tourist path and we found a small guesthouse in the tiny town of Paksong. The next day the weather cleared and we were treated with spectacular views of rice paddies and coffee fields. We stopped at a homestay in an ethnic minority village for a cup of coffee (hand round in mortar & pestle and served in a bamboo stalk pour over) and stayed the night by the Tad Lo waterfall.


Wat Phou, Champasak


On the road on Bolevan Plateau

Si Phan Don. Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, is an archipelago in southern Laos along the Mekong River. A French couple we met in Tad Lo had just come from here and recommended the guesthouse Mama Leauh on the island Don Det. In all our travels so far, I have never heard people recommend a place more vehemently than this couple so we knew we had to stay here. It did not disappoint. We stayed in a charming riverside bungalow and just relaxed and explored the islands for five days. The food was phenomenal. Not all traditionally Lao (their specialty was Schnitzel!) but super scrumptious. Despite the humidity, Ryan was able to get some runs in around the island and I rented a bicycle with no brakes for $1 to explore.


Sunset on the Mekong


4 Days in Singapore

After our month in Nepal, we flew on to our next destination. Singapore! From here we launched the SE Asia portion of our adventure that will take us to Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through the end of August.

We arrived in Singapore on Friday, June 9th and stayed through the 13th when we took a bus a few hours north to Melaka, Malaysia. Coming from Nepal, one of the least developed countries either of us has ever traveled in, we had a bit of reverse culture shock landing in a big modern city like Singapore! I have to admit it was very nice to be in a place with sidewalks and street lights and very good public transit after trying to cross traffic in Kathmandu.

Singaporeans are a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian people and culture. As you can imagine, that meant the food was absolutely amazing and there was a ton of variety. We tried satay, chicken rice, noodles galore, roti for breakfast, dim sum… We ate most of our meals at hawker centres, which are food markets with lots of different stalls and types of dishes. My main strategy was to find the longest line at the hawker center and just get that.

A big highlight from our time in Singapore was meeting up with Gim, a friend of a friend back home. Gim was gracious enough to spend all day Saturday with us showing us around Singapore, touring The National Gallery Singapore and Gardens by the Bay, treating us to some delicious local food and even letting us relax and swim at her pool! I can’t say enough what a great time we had. Thank you, Gim!

Since we had such a whirlwind couple of days, I think the best way to share our experience is to share some of our favorite photos:


Our first night in Singapore we had dinner at the Lau Pa Set food center (satay and dim sum!) and walked around Clarke Quay and the Marina Bay Area.


View of Clarke Quay (pronounced “key”). We followed the lead of some other tourists & locals and bought beers at the 7-11 and chilled on the bridge rather than at one of the overpriced bars.


Our first view of Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay. You can see the domes and one patch of “Supertrees.”


Inside the supertree grove around 10 PM. The outdoor area of the gardens are free and open until 2 AM.


On Saturday we met up with our new friend Gim. Our first stop was The National Gallery Singapore. Lucky for us a new exhibit of Yayoi Kusama’s work had just opened! This is the second Kusama exhibit of our trip!


The exhibit was titled “Life is the Heart of a Rainbow.”




…and polka dots!


Ryan and Gim in one of Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms.


Venus de Milo covered in Kusama’s hallmark colored nets.


After the museum and lunch we headed to Gardens by the Bay. Here are the supertrees by day!


Inside the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay. You can see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the background through the glass.


Gim, Ryan and me at the Flower Dome.


Waterfall inside the Cloud Forest Dome.


Walkway around the cloud forest.


Example of peranakan style homes in Singapore.


View from Gim’s balcony overlooking the pool. We took a late afternoon dip!


Chili crab! As a grand finale to our amazing day, Gim took us to the East Coast Food Village to chow down on chili crab, veggies, BBQ stingray, salted egg chicken and more! It was a delicious feast.


This is the entrance to the Ramadan Bazaar on Geylang Street. Thousands of people, lights and vendors selling everything from unicorn milkshakes to carpets and clothes.


On Sunday we went to lunch in Little India. Ryan enjoyed his masala dosa and mango lassi.


Umbrella tree art installation in Little India.


That night we enjoyed fancy cocktails from a rooftop bar. Here’s the view of Lantern, the bar on top of the Fullerton Hotel on Marina Bay.


Enjoying a cocktail overlooking Marina Bay Sands.


Ryan and his Singapore Sling.


On our last full day in Singapore we started out with a tour of the Tiger Brewery.


I was happy to see that Tiger has several solar arrays on their facility! I’ll drink to that.


Ryan and his inner tiger.


Tourguide Mark showing us the ropes. Ryan and one of the other participants got to try their hand at the perfect pour. Cheers!


The tour ended with a beer and 45 minute tasting in Tiger’s pub. Singapore is pretty expensive so these were probably the cheapest drinks in town!


After the brewery we headed over to Bukit Timah for an afternoon walk.


We reached the summit! This is the end of our pics from Singapore. The next day we caught a bus to Melaka and began our tour of Malaysia!

Thanks for a great time, Singapore!