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It was the second time that we have spent holidays in Langkawi. The first time was just before we moved to SinNew_IMG_0402gapore and we loved it enough to return for another week of holidays!

This time we went back with Sjoerd's parents and we had a great time. It was less sunny than the first time, but that made it was more plesant to discover the island.
 
Of course we did again island-hopping trip with the eagle feeding, and it a nice spectacle again! There were at least 30 eagles flying around us, diving for the pieces of fish thown in the water by the boatman water. It was unbelievable how close to us they were flying and the speed with which they approached the water. There were two different types of eagles with very different colors. We can’t remember the names of the species, but they were both amazingly beautiful...
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This time we have also taken the cable car up the mountain and the views were well worth the trip! The whole trip was actually nicer than we had expected...
Next to the cable car station there is also an amazing stable where horses are very well taken care of! We didn’t have time to ride them, but it is certainly on the list for next time.
 
But the most amazing thing we discovered in Langkawi is Bon Ton. This is a fantastic hotel / restaurant / animal rescue centre / animal clinic. It’s truly an amazing place.
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The rooms are fantastic, not cheap, but really great looking bungalows and there are plenty of cats and dogs walking around, especially cats! It was just so good to see that there is a place like this in Langkawi, where animals are treated well. They all have their stories, most of them were found or unwanted and this is where they end up. An absolutely amazing initiative and we just wish more like this would exist! What an oasis of happiness for all these animals.

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We discovered they had even more cats a little bit further afield away from the hotels, at least 80 fat, sterilized happy cats! We loved loved this place!!!!!!!!!!!
 
We’ll be back in Langkawi, back at BON TON...
 
 

Bangkok (May '08)

Interior of Jim Thompson's House
We started our Bangkok visit with Jim Thompson's house. 
After coming to Thailand as officer during World War Two, Jim Thompson built his dream house in Bangkok, filling it with pieces of art from his travels across Thailand. Jim Thomson is famous for bringing Thai silk to the attention of the world.
We all loved this place. He knew indeed how to make a nice living for himself and the whole house was decorated with a lot of taste.
Next on our list was Vimanmek Palace, which is claimed to be the world's largest building made entirely of golden teak. The building was originally constructed on Srichang Island in the Gulf of Siam by King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn). In 1901, the building was moved to its present site.
 
We didn’t know what to expect as it was our first time here. In many ways it reminded us of Europe. It was nice, but not that impressive after all. And it was sad to see all the stuffed animals in one of the rooms . I am certain we will never return...
 
The next day we started off with the Chatuchak market and we all loved it (especially Diana's mum!).
 
We bought beautiful jewelry and even some orchids. The challenge was to get them in one piece to Singapore, but it all worked out fine and we can still admire them in the living room :-)
 
Shopping and negotiating in Chatuchak was great fun, but we got absolutely exhausted at the end of it!
Wat Pra Kaew
Palace at Wat Pra Kaew
The next day we visited the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is without a doubt one of the most visited places in Bangkok and it is understandable why this is the case. The temples are very impressive with beautiful carvings all around and it is very colorful as well which makes it even more attractive
 Wat Pra Kaew
The Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. It is located within the grounds of the Palace. The temple was made famous by the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand's most revered and cherished Buddha images. The image is a sitting posture of the Buddha, 75 centimeters (30 inches) in height and is carved entirely out of emerald. Buddhist pilgrams and tourists from all over the world come to visit and to pay homage to the Emerald Buddha. The wall surrounding the temple area is painted with scenes from the Thai version of the Ramayana mythology, the Ramakian. Several statues in the temple area resemble figures from this story, most notably the giants (yak), five-meter high statues. These are some of our favorites due to the vibrant colors. Also originating from the Ramayana are the monkey kings and giants which surround the golden chedis.
 Feeding pigeons
We have spent every evening eating great food and shopping in the night market of course. Bangkok is a very enjoyable place, even though it’s very busy . There is plenty to see and do and the people are friendly.
 Reclining Buddha at Wat Po
The last thing on our list of places to visit was Wat Pho. We kept it for the last day because it was one of our favorite places. It is one of Bangkok's oldest and largest temples. Wat Pho was built by King Rama I nearly 200 years ago and houses the gigantic gold-plated Reclining Buddha. This unique image is 46 metres in length and 15 metres high with beautifully inlaid mother-of pearl soles . Wat Pho is also regarded as the first centre of public education and is sometimes called "Thailand's First University".
 
Besides its beauty there is another great thing about this place. There are many cats that are kept here by the monks. Some smart entrepreneurs even sell cat food to the tourists. We bought some of course, but the cats weren’t too hungry :-)
 
Our long weekend in Bangkok was great as always and we just wished it could last a bit longer. No worries... we’ll be back again soon!!!!

For more pictures, click here.

Bali (March 2008)

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Bali is really becoming one of our favorite destinations. 

It has it great beaches, beautiful temples, culture, nice people and great shopping.
I guess I can say that summarizes what we have been up to in our 9 days there :-)
 
In the first couple of days we just enjoyed the sun and took it easy. One evening we went to Uluwatu to see it in the beautiful sunset light and to see the Kecak dances. We truly enjoyed this performance at the sunset with the magnificent view and the beautiful masks.
 
The next day we drove up to Ubud which is the cultural centre of Bali and we enjoyed the great shopping of crafts. And every building seems beautiful here, we couldn’t stop taking photos. We have also met a famous local medicine woman, who gave me a horrible-tasting soup that almost instantly my throat ache...
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We have also picked up surfing lessons, which was one of the highlights of our holidays! We loved the waves! And Viki of course enjoyed the spa treatments and great massages as often as she remembered it :-)

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What a holiday we want to go back already!!!!!

For more pictures, click here.
 

Treasures of Borneo (Mar '08)

Borneo is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia, with a small part for Brunei. The Malaysian part is divided into Sarawak and Sabah, both of which have absolutely stunning nature. Three years ago when we moved to Singapore we visited Sarawak to explore four national parks. It was about time to discover Sabah! Our main destinations were Danum Valley, the Kinabatangan River and the Sepilok Orangutan rehabilitation centre.
 Jungle view from lodge
Danum Valley
What a place this is... Danum Valley has one of the largest bio-diversity in the world, and it is the greenest, densest, wildest and most beautiful rainforest imaginable!
Danum Valley is part of a very big logging concession, with a part set aside as a conservation area of pristine wilderness. Unfortunately, the conservation area is rather small... It is truly unbelievable how something this old and beautiful, so rich in flora and fauna is being destroyed so rapidly.

Redleaf monkeys
It was a holiday where we have seen unbelievable natural beauty (not even the best documentaries could do it justice), but at the same time it was a holiday where we have seen the destructions caused by people. We were told that logging will stop in April, but we are not sure how true this is and for how long this will last.
 
The jungle was amazing - you can spot lots of wildlife, and even if you can’t see them you can hear them roaming around. An incredible sound! It is particularly loud in the morning (when they wake up) and just before nightfall.
The only place where tourists can stay is the Rainforest lodge, which is a great way to limit the number of tourists in the park (maximum 70 people). The lodge is very luxurious: we had a jacuzzi overlooking the rainforest, good guides that organize activities and fantastic food (this was a real surprise). We did as many walks as possible - early morning walks (as early as 5:30am to make sure we don’t miss out on the jungle waking up), afternoon walks and night safaris.
Diana walking on a jungle road
We started with the breathtaking canopy walk, which is a series of suspension bridges high up in the trees. You are walking high between the trees, and as far as you can see there’s only jungle and wilderness. We have seen a family of redleaf monkeys, which was looking at us with the same curiosity as we were looking at them. There was a mother and a baby, two teenagers and a big male. 
In the morning it was amazing to wake up with the hornbills flying in the mist looking for a fig tree and making loud calls to each other. In the afternoon we came face to face with a mouse deer and we have also seen a huge tarantula, more red leaf monkeys, macaques and countless birds and insects.
During the night safari we spotted a flying giant squirrel, a mouse deer, snakes, a sleeping kingfisher, many deer and a Malay civet. Elephants and orangutans would have been a bonus, but they were deeper in the jungle this time. But in the night the samba deer were just in front of our room, it is amazing! 
Danum Valley is absolutely stunning, one of the last remaining primary rainforests. We will certainly come back and we hope the people of Sabah will realize what a treasure this place is and will preserve it as it is.
 


 View on Kinabatangan river

Kinabatangan
Our next destination was the Kinabatangan River in which is the second longest river in Malaysia. Kinabatangan is known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats such as riverine forests, freshwater swamp forests, oxbow lakes and salty mangrove swamps near the coast.
Proboscis monkey
It is somewhat the same deforestation story as in Danum Valley. The forests of the upper reaches of the river have been severely disrupted by excessive logging and clearing of land for plantations. However, the lowland forests and mangrove swamps near the coast have largely survived, and contain some of Borneo's highest concentrations of wildlife (proboscis monkeys, orangutans, elephants and of course a great variety of birdlife).

In 1997, 270 square kilometers of the lower Kinabatangan was declared a protected area, and in 2001 this designation was upgraded to that of "bird sanctuary", largely through the efforts of the World Wide Fund for Nature. However, further efforts to have the area declared a "wildlife refuge" or even "national park" have been opposed by the logging industry, and oil palm plantation owners seeking to expand their cultivated land.
We had some great boat trips where we have seen many different types of hornbills, a storm stork, silver leaf monkeys, and the stars were the very funny looking proboscis monkeys (they have huge bellies and big noses). We loved this place so much that we are already preparing our next trip back to the Kinabatangan.
 

Sepilok
This place is famous for the orangutan rehabilitation centre. There are more tourists than in the previous places where we have been, but we would still highly recommend this place. Firstly because you will see semi-wild orangutans and secondly by paying an entrance fee you are contributing to the upkeeping of this amazing place.
Orang utans at Sepilok

There is feeding twice a day , but there is no guarantee about how many orangutans will come. If they find enough food in the forest they won’t come, but there are almost always some. Some come because they are just very young and can’t yet manage on their own, and some come just because they are lazy and want to take the easy option... 
We have been both at the morning and at the afternoon feeding. In the afternoon it was raining, but this did not stop the orangutans. They came and it’s just amazing to see how smart they are, they were protecting themselves from the rain with leaves!
Orang utans at Sepilok
The work of the people at the centre is truly remarkable. But it is very sad to think that often people don’t realize that there are thousands of amazing animals living in the forests like the orangutans and if there are no forests there is nowhere for them to go. The forest is their home. We have to do everything we possibly can to keep the forests and plant new trees where the damage has already been done. Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the World”, and each of us can and should do something.



Rafflesia
We were also lucky to see a raflessia, which is the largest flower in the world and can only be found on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, Kalimantan and the Philippines.

It is huge indeed as you can see in this photo; we put our umbrella next to it to show its size. We were lucky to see it as it only opens once a year, and in a national park that is famous for this flower there was none at this time. But when driving aruond we saw a sign that in the garden of a lucky lady, there was an blooming flower! The lady was happy to show it, as she met many foreigners and earned a nice income from entrance fees...
 Rafflesia flower
A last thing I would like to mention is that we have seen a lot of homeless dogs during this holiday and some of them were just so incredibly thin that it was a surprise that could walk. All these dogs should be sterilized; it is much more humane solution than killing babies or dumping them. And the ones out there should be treated with more compassion! And you, who read this blog, please buy some food for the dogs when you are in Malaysia!
All in all, Sabah is a fantastic destination with some of the most spectacular and unique nature, but the sad truth is that it is disappearing fast. People need to be explained that what they have is a treasure, and that forests that have been there for hundreds of years should not be disturbed. Also the people need to get other alternatives to make a living, not just logging and palm oil.

For more pictures, click here.

Holiday on Koh Yao Yai

This year we decided to have a beach holiday for Chinese New Year  - and what a great decision that was!
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We had our tickets booked to Phuket a long time ago, but Phuket seems to be just too busy around this time of the year. We decided to explore a smaller island just off Phuket called Koh Yao Yai. It takes about 40 min by boat from the Marina and it is a quiet refuge far from the crowds of Phuket, especially around Chinese New Year.
We managed to find the most wonderful boutique resort called Elixir Resort and it was super relaxing. Our friend Rahim joined us on this trip ,and even though he had a small motorbike accident he enjoyed the good treatment on the small island!
 
All we wanted read great books on the beach and at the pool side, eat great food and have the best massages ever!
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I am really not a massage person, but at this resort the massages were so good that I wanted to get it every day. Even the boys enjoyed it, which is exceptional for Sjoerd. The ladies there are tough, but that’s exactly what makes it so good.
We didn't do lots of activities (although you could go diving and kayaking), but this is just a fantastic place for relaxing and one of those places where you just want to go back to - he sooner the better  :-)

Click here for more pictures.

Nepal & Everest Base Camp Trek (Dec '07)

20/12/07 Singapore – Katmandu (1,337m)
Seeing the Himalayan mountain peaks from the plane during our approach to Kathmandu made us realize that we were really approaching a country at the top of the world: Nepal. The views on the hills and the distant mountain range were absolutely stunning.
After checking in at Ganesh Himal hotel in Thamel district, it was time to decide which trek to do – a decision we couldn’t take for two months (it was hard to choose from so many fantastic trekking opportunities in Nepal). After long discussions and some advice from the locals, we decided to go for the biggest challenge: the 12 day Everest Base camp trek that reaches up to 5,550 meters! The decision was hard, as it was in December and temperatures at that altitude can drop to -20° C.
 
But the weather reports and forecasts were good and we had a spare couple of days in case of bad weather, so we thought we should give it a try. Next step was to buy/rent the right gear: duck-down sleeping bags and jackets, thermal underwear, hats, gloves, UV sunglasses, backpack… We had to be careful not to bring too much, as we would have to carry every gram up the mountain!
 Lukla airport (with the world's largest incline of 8 degrees...)
21/12/07 Kathmandu (1,337m) – Lukla (2,840m) – Phakding (2,610m)
We took a morning flight on a small plan from Kathmandu to Lukla and it was spectacular. As this season is not very touristy, we were the only passengers and the 40 minute flight provided fantastic views on the mountains. During the flight, we could look straight through the cockpit and it seemed like we were going to crash into a mountain several times and Diana was scared to death! The approach was quite bumpy and took us within meters from steep cliffs, before landing on one of the world’s steepest runaways (about 10 degree angle up to a mountain) in Lukla (2,840m)
 
After a nice lunch in Lukla, we packed our gear and started the trek! First destination was Phakding (2,610m), and it took us 3 hours to get there. All guide books recommend spending the first night here, so we checked into a lovely lodge called Prince of Everest. The trek itself was an excellent start with a good path, fantastic views through the valleys and on towering mountains all around. To our surprise, it was actually really warm in the sun, and we could walk just in a long-sleeve thermal shirt (probably 20°C in the sun, although there was ice in the shadow). But we were happy for our warm cloths in the late afternoon when the sun disappeared behind the mountains …it suddenly got quite chilly. The drop in temperature is impressive: from warm summer weather in the day to subzero winter weather in the evening. It was the first chance to test our sleeping bags, but they looked warm and comfortable!
 View down Dudh Koshi valley
22/12/07 Phakding (2,610m) – Monjo (2,835m) – Namche Bazar (3,440m)
After a good breakfast and with lots of energy we started on the 2nd day of our trek: via Monjo to Namche Bazar. Most of the trek was through pine forests, and the first part to Monjo was quite easy and very scenic. We even spotted an antelope in the valley. There were multiple hanging bridges and we just couldn’t stop taking pictures of the magnificent scenery.Taking a break before crossing a very high suspension bridge
But don’t come here if you are afraid of heights: sometimes the bridges hang 100m above a raging river with icy water. The second part of the trip was TOUGH! We already found it more physically demanding than running a half marathon in the tropics…Especially with our 15 kg backpacks, it became quite hard in the end. But were happy and proud not to use porters – this is the real deal!

After an exhausting 7.5 hours trek, we finally arrived in Namche Bazaar, where we found a great hotel (with hot shower!) called Khumbu Lodge. This lodge was the first in Namche Bazar, and even Jimmy Carter and Robert Redford stayed here. Namche Bazar itself used to be a trading hub between Tibet and the Nepali valleys. Trade dwindled after the Chinese invasion into Tibet, but trekking and mountaineering now provides a decent living for the local sherpas.


View on Namche Bazar (3,440m)

23/12/07 Namche Bazar (3,440m)
We spent two nights in Namche Bazar to acclimatize. On the rest day we made a beautiful walk to Thamo with splendid views. Unfortunately Sjoerd fell sick (some food poisoning) and we were scared that our trip will have to end early.
 





Views on Mount Everest
24/12/07 Namche Bazar (3,440m) – Phunki Tenga (3,250m) – Tengboche (3,860m)
Even the next morning we had doubts, but by 10am we thought we should give it a try and continue the trek according to the original plan. Sjoerd pulled his strength together for this challenge. But when we saw Mount Everest after a few minutes into the walk, closer than ever before, it was real a motivation!
 
The first half of the trek was relatively flat, but the last part absolutely brutal: two hours straight up a high hill to Tengboche (3,860m). For this kind of climb, it’s very important to find your own rhythm – we did 15 min walk and 5 min break. It worked for us. We made it and we were just so happy to arrive to a small guest house with a warm dining room! From Tengboche the views on Mount Everest and surrounding mountains were stunning!
Tengboche Monastery - the monastery with the world's best views!

At this point, we were taking it one day at a time, every day is an achievement. We felt that it didn’t matter if at the end we make it to Base Camp and Kala Patthar, or not. The journey so far was already amazing, and well worth all the efforts!
 




Crows circling the skies above Dingboche (4,410m) in the late afternoon

25/12/07 Tengboche (3,860m) – Pangboche (3,930m) – Dingboche (4,410m)
When we left at 9am, it was very cold with ice everywhere. We had to put on warm jackets, gloves, hats and mouth protection to stay warm. Until Pangboche we walked together with Taro, a nice Japanese guy who took a couple of months off to travel the Subcontinent. We had a long lunch break in the lovely village of Pangboche, with some of the typical food here: potatoes, cabbage and momos (kind of dumplings). The next 1.5 hours were good with a flat trail and good views. Unfortunately our destination (Dingboche at 4,410m) was on top of a high hill. Our 15 min walk / 5 min rest rhythm worked for this climb as well. We checked into a lodge at the end of the village, and prepared to spend two nights here (as Dingboche is again an acclimatization stop). Biggest plus point: they prepared excellent rice pudding with cinnamon!
Fantastic views, just above Dingboche (4,410m)
 
26/12/07 Dingboche (4,410m)
In the morning we took it easy and after lunch we made a two-hour walk up to a nearby hill to help the acclimatization process. We needed to do this, as tomorrow we would go up to 4,910m. We were acclimatizing quite well, but we can feel we’re high up in the mountains whenever we have to walk upwards (you’re instantly out of breath). By now we miss a decent shower, and hope to find this in Lobuche…




Friendly baby yak

27/12/07 Dingboche (4,410m) – Dughla (4,620m) – Lobuche (4,910m)
After a good breakfast we left at 8 :30am for Lobuche. This time we could really feel the altitude right from the start, when we started to climb the hill next to the village. The first 2.5 hours to Dughla were OK with a moderate ascent all the way. We had lunch in Dugla, and it was very hard to motivate ourselves for the tough climb we knew was coming (we could already see the steep hill)… And it proved to be as bad as expected! Climbing uphill at 4,900 m high, carrying our own luggage – it wasn’t great! We again applied our 15 min walk / 5 min break rhythm and we eventually made it to the top. The views were again stunning! There are no trees, no bushes, just some grass, rocks and ice. And some beautiful and friendly yaks, of course!
Sunset on Himalayas
Again we came to the conclusion that this was one of the toughest challenges we have ever done. Finally we arrived to Lobuche, a small village with some simple lodges (no shower!). It feels colder up here and we hope our sleeping bags will be warm enough!
 
28/12/07 Lobuche (4,910m) – Gorak Shep (5,140m)
After a sleepless night (due to high altitude and dry air) we started our ascent to Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest Base Camp. We quickly found out that the ascent at 5,000m is quite different from ascending at 2,500m and we frequently had to stop to catch our breath. The backpacks didn’t make it any easier.Diana making her way to Gorak Shep
The worst part was just before Lobuche Pass (5,110m) when we first had to climb a steep hill and then carefully balance on glacier rocks, for an hour. We were tired, had a headache, and felt nauseous and dizzy. We weren’t sure if we should push on just a bit more, or turn back to lower altitude – tough question. But with several long breaks, we finally made it to our destination Gorak Shep, where we found a remarkably comfortable lodge.

It’s clear that the altitude takes its toll, and we now have a real admiration for the physical fitness and the mental persistence of those people that climb all the way to the top of Everest. When we reach Everest Base Camp we’ll turn back, but for them it’s just the beginning…We believe that in the end, it’s all about willpower and mental strength to push your body when it wants to give up (every minute or so!). As Sir Edmund Hillary, the first one to be on top of Everest, said: “It's not the mountains that we conquer but ourselves”.
But don’t worry we don’t intend to ever climb to the summit of Everest!
 View on Everest Base Camp
29/12/07 Gorak Shep (5,140m) – Everest Base Camp (5,364m)
Another day that was much harder than expected! We woke up at 6am, hoping that we would be able to do two treks today: first to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and in the afternoon to Kala Patthar for the Everest view. But after we came back from Base Camp we realized that our energy levels were too low and that it was not going to happen…

We left at 7am in the bitter cold from Gorak Shep and we didn’t feel the sun until we reached Base Camp at 10am. The trek itself was impressive and hostile: you are walking all alone over very uneven glacier rocks, surrounded by the world’s tallest mountains, no sign of life anywhere (not even a bird), and it’s very cold when you are not in the sun. But we were getting closer to Base Camp and the views were spectacular!!!

We had some ideas about how Everest base camp would look, but reality was quite different. Firstly, there was hardly a flat piece of land in sight and it’s hard to imagine how all the mountaineers put up their tents here. Secondly, we expected it to be rocky, but we didn’t realize that those rocks were just the cover of the huge Khumbu glacier…there was ice everywhere: below, at the sides, above you… everywhere you looked.
Frozen but proud at Everest Base Camp (5,364m)
Thirdly, EBC is very remote. We expected it to be relatively easy to reach, but you need to trek for 8 days from Lukla, climb over 3,000 vertical meters, and in the end climb over huge rocks on a glacier. It’s amazing to think how every year hundreds of mountaineers, thousands of and porters and tons of material move up to EBC during the trekking season.
Although we have no desire ever to climb Everest, we have real admiration for those that do. Trekking to EBC was the toughest thing we’ve ever done – we can only imagine how hard it is to climb to the top!
You don’t play around with nature, as we’ve hard from locals: “the Himalayas are there to change you, not for you to change the Himalayas”.
 
At the top of Kala Patthar (5,550m)
30/12/07 Gorak Shep (5,140m) – Kala Patthar (5,550m) – Pherice (4,270m)
We started the day with a climb up to Kala Patthar, which has magnificent views on Mount Everest. But what a tough climb that was! We were not sure if we would be able to make it, as the oxygen level is half Mount Everest, as seen from Kala Patthar (5,550m)compared to sea level! You really have to take every step at a time. We reached the peak in 1hour and 45 minutes, and we were lucky that there were no other people on top (as only one person can be on top at any given moment).

At the top it was extremely windy, it felt like we make one wrong move and we would be blown down. But the magnificent views on Mount Everest and the other peaks made it more than worth it!!!!












Mount Everest (8,848) is the high high peak on the left, Base Camp is at the bottom left. The peak on the right is Nuptse (7,861m) which looks higher as its closer...
Looking over tombstones in Thokla Pass...
It was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. The descent was much easier and after a long lunch we packed our stuff and prepared to leave for Pherice. Downhill - more oxygen!!!
We left at 12:30 and we reached Pherice by 6pm, covering the same distance that took us two days to climb. We saw a lot of people struggling to go up, and we were happy and proud to be on our way dawn!

One special special things we saw here was a memorial site for all people that died on Mount Everest. In the picture you can see the stone constructions built in memory of the victims - over 250, and counting... It was a very impressive place.
 
31/12/07 Pherice (4,270m) – Namche Bazar (3,440m)
As we were going down we expected this part of the trail to be very easy and fast. But it wasn’t! Even though you are going down, the trail doesn’t go straight down: it’s a lot of up and down… By the time we reached Namche Bazar, it was already dark. But this was also due to the fact that we stopped very often to take pictures and to absorb all the beauty of the Himalayas! We always stopped to have a good last look on Chomolungma (Mount Everest)!
 
When we reached Namche Bazar we were exhausted, but happy that we managed to make it in one day. Of course we returned to Khumbu Lodge, where we could take a hot shower!!!! Finally after 6 days, it was very refreshing! It was a good fresh start for the New Year! We were so happy with this place that we decided to take an unscheduled rest day and spent two nights here!
 
01/01/08 Namche Bazar (3,440m)
We have spent the whole day in the dining area in the warm sun, reading books and articles about famous mountaineers and Sherpas and their adventures on Mount Everest. And what a fantastic and well-deserved rest day that was!
 
Huge mani stone in Monjo02/01/08 Namche Bazar (3,440m) )- Lukla (2,840m)
This was the last day walking on the trail. We felt sad and happy at the same time: sad that we were leaving these beautiful mountains, and happy that we made it without any serious health issues and we got to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar as planned.

At these lower altitudes, you see a lot of beautifully carved 'mani' stones (like in the picture). They are covered with the text Om Mani Padme Hum, an i buddhist phrase meaning "heal the jewel in the lotus."

But some more energy was still needed to get to Lukla, which was a long walk. But even though we had to walk the last half hour in complete darkness, we made it from Namche Bazar to Lukla in one day!

So far we only had crystal-clear skies and no snow-fall, and this was the first day that there were some. But it was our last day, so we really didn’t mind. The local people were looking forward to some snow finally, as it it’s normally already snowing by this time of the year… unfortunately we suspect that this is due to global warming.
 Man carrying huge carpet (Durbar Square, Kathmandu)
03/01/08 Lukla (2,840m) – Kathmandu (1,337m)
Due to bad visibility in Kathmandu, most of the flights got delayed or cancelled this morning. There were almost a hundred frustrated tourists waiting in the tiny airport! But we were very lucky as our flight did not get cancelled. And we were lucky that we didn’t need to wait in the airport, but that we could stay in our room (the hotel staff told us when to go to the airport, so we avoided all the frustrations in the airport). The flight was fantastic again with incredible scenery all around! We said good-bye to Himalayas, but we know that we will return for another trek!
 
In Kathmandu we checked into a nice hotel in Thamel and we did some great shopping! In the afternoon we visited Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, which is a cluster of ancient temples, palaces, courtyards and streets that date back to the 12th century. The Palace Complex was the royal Nepalese residence until the 19th century and is the site of important ceremonies. The palace and temples are decorated with elaborately-carved wooden windows. It is really incredibly beautiful!
 
 
04/01/08 Bhaktapur (Kathmandu Valley)
Today we decided to visit Bhaktapur, which is an impressive and very well preserved medieval city in the Kathmandu Valley. The city was once the capital of Nepal during the great Malla Kingdom from the 12th to the 15th century. Walking through this city makes you feel like walking through a medieval city – small shops everywhere, lots of traditional art and architecture; women are making clay-pots, weaving, and sun-drying crops and vegetable products. It is amazing how it was all preserved are the temples and palaces, as well as the small streets where everyday life unfolds!
 
Temple on Taumadhi Tole square in BhaktapurMedieval-looking alleys (Bhaktapur)Temple with prayer wheels (Bhaktapur)
Our last destination for the day was the famous Swayambunath temple in Kathmandu, which is one of the symbols of Nepal. It is also known as the Monkey Temple, as there is a big colony of macaques living here.
It is an impressive stupa with great views on the city (it’s situated on top of a hill).
 
View on Kathmandu from Swayambunath templeSwayambunath temple (Kathmandu)View from Swayambunath temple (Kathmandu)
05/01/08 Kathmandu - Singapore
Unfortunately we had to leave Nepal today. We were sad, but we know that we’ll return to this beautiful country with its spectacular treks, warm people, great food, historical cities (and great shopping of course)!!!!!!
 
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Bali, Flores and Komodo National Park (Dec '07)

Last week, we went for a fantastic holidays to Bali and Labuanbajo (Flores). Labuanbajo is the best way to access the Komodo National Park, View from Angel Islandfamous for the Komodo Dragons and for exquisite diving!!!
Stonefish
The scenery is stunning, as you can see in the picture here. The waters are crystal clear, and there are mountains everywhere. We started the trip with a night dive off Angel Island, during which we have seen many beautiful creatures including the rare stone fish. It's very hard to spot, and many people confuse a scorpion fish with the stone fish. It has several dorsal spines on its back with very lethal poison. The spines are so sharp that they pierce straight through your wetsuit - so you have to be careful!

Our base was Labuanbajo, and every morning we took a boat into the National Park. The dive sites are among the best in the world, and we were very impressed with the beautiful coral and huge variety and quantity of fish. We have never seen so many lion fish together (sometime five in one place); there was a hunting octopus, a huge cuttle fish. And we haven't even mentioned the sharks and manta rays yet...

IMG_2155LionfishCuttle fishOctopus

We have been within one meter from several large white-tip reef sharks, and at some point we were surrounded by five in total! According to our dive instructor, we'll never get this close again! It was mainly thanks to him that we had this unique opportunity, as he taught us how to approach these shy creatures.
White-tip reef sharksWhite-tip reef sharks

Mantas!

On our last dive, we went to a dive site called "Manta Air Strip" where we saw more than ten huge manta rays, peacefully swimming over us while we admired them. The current was very strong, but it was all worth it!

All in all, it was one of the best diving spots we've ever been to!






Komodo dragon
We also visited Rinca Island in the Komodo National Park, which is home to the famous Komodo Dragon. It's a type of monitor lizard, and it's an amazing animal. They are 2-3 meters long, and not afraid to attack large buffalos (they bite, wait two weeks for the poison in their saliva to weaken the buffalo, and then eat it). They sometimes also attack human beings - last March, they grabbed a small boy and mortally wounded him). But they are usually peaceful, and a protected species. There are around 1,400 dragons now, and the population is stable.

And last but not least, we managed to save a small kitten... we heard a desperate cry for help while we walked back to our hotel, and found a tiny, very weak and thin, abandoned kitten in a garden. He had an infected eye and clearly didn't have food for a couple of days.
We took him to the hotel, fed him, cleaned him up and provided intensive care for a couple of days. Luckily the owners of the hotel were looking for a new cat, and they were happy adopt this one :-)Small cat we've saved from the street

According to some other guests, they should call him "Lucky" as we saved his life and found him a nice new home.

All in all: another place where we want to go back to!

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Surprise trip to Phuket (Oct '07)

Phuket, Karon BeachWhen Diana called me on Fridaty afternoon to ask when I was coming home, I didn't know why the exact time was so important... But when I finally arrived, I understood - we just have 15 minutes to pack up to leave to the airport, to catch our our flight to Phuket!

It was a great surprise. The beautiful beaches of Phuket and the hospitality of the Thai makes you want to go back again and again!

This time, we went to Karon beach (see picture on the right). The weather was perfect, and it is our favorite beach. 

Phuket, Karon Beach
We also made friends with the local animals (as we always seem to do...). This time, it was a very friendly, but very sandy, beach dog who spent most of the day sleeping under our sun bed.

Great weekend break - and we'll be back!

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Diving in Sipadan (Aug '07)

Now we know why Sipadan is one of the top-10 dive spots in the world!
sipadan beach photo
Thousands of barracudas circling around you, hundreds of green turtles sleeping on the coral, huge bumphead parrot fish, groups of reef sharks just above and below you, you name it: it’s there…

Sipadan is a small island off the south coast of Sabah (Malaysia), and it’s essentially a peak rising up from the sea bed. Around the island is a flat coral reef and then a 600 meter drop-off… Each dive starts at the top of the cliff, you descend around 30 meters along the wall, and then you gradually make your way upward again.
 
We dived on Sipadan for two days, and we spent the night on Mabul Island (to protect the fragile coral reef, you cannot sleep on Sipadan itself). The other nights we stayed in Semporna on the main land – a small city mainly catering to backpacking divers.
 Turtle
We made six dives around Sipadan (Barracuda Point, South Point, Hanging Gardens, West Ridge and North Point), one night dive on Mabul and one night dive in Semporna. Especially the dives at Barracuda Point, Hanging Gardens and South Point were unforgettable… we have never before seen such an abundance of fish, sharks and turtles.
 Black-tip Reef Sharks
And it wasn’t just the big fish swimming around – when you turned around and looked at the wall, you could often see huge green turtles sleeping in shallow caves.
 
The night dive in Mabul was also very impressive, with a large variety of shrimps, frog fish, scorpion fish, lion fish, etc. No need to say more… just look at these pictures:
 


 Spiny Devilfish
Lion FishFreckled Frogfish
Diana with school of baracudas
Helmut Gurnard (front)






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Diana & Sjoerd

Back home: visiting family & friends, wedding in Spain and first time in Barcelona (Jul ’07)

Last month, we went back home to see family and friends… Netherlands, Romania, Hungary and Spain in 10 days… great fun!
Zutphen
We started in the Netherlands. I went a few days earlier than Diana, and I used those days to visit my grandma, and Nicky in her new apartment, went to see my old high school in Lochem, our old house and my elementary school in Borculo, etc. It was funny to see how little things have changed there… same shops, same advertising, shops still close at 6pm. I also went for a ride on the back of Henk’s new motor bike for a tour around Zutphen – nice! On Friday, I went to Amsterdam to see Ido, William and Femke. Great evening, lots of wine, and a short night because I had to wake up at 5am to pick up Diana from the airport…

On Sunday, we celebrated Henk’s birthday and it was an excellent opportunity to catch up with a lot of uncles, aunts and cousin that I hadn’t seen for ages… Next morning, we had to leave early to catch a flight to Budapest, where Diana’s mum picked us up. We spent a couple of days in Oradea, which was surprisingly hot after the mild temperatures in the Netherlands…
Oradea
It was nice to be back there, and a lot of things have changed… lots of new shops, buildings, advertising… it really is a developing country. It was good to see that they also renovated some buildings in the city centre, which is looking much better now. Unfortunately, there is no effort made to improve the looks of the communist buildings in the outskirts… hopefully that will come later.
Budapest
At home, we spent most of the time eating all the wonderful things that we cannot buy in Singapore. We also met Laci, the boyfriend of Diana’s mum… he’s an animal lover and seems to be very nice company. We also used the time to find a nice retirement home for the grandmother. It’s a nice, privately run Hungarian place, which is quite a change from the usual Romanian sanatoriums. She didn’t like it in the beginning, but after 2-3 weeks she starts to enjoy it. We’ll see…

We had to leave too soon again, and spent one night in Budapest before flying off to Barcelona. We stayed with Viki and had some time to hear the latest gossip from Budapest…

Next morning we flew to Barcelona - without a doubt one of the most beautiful and bustling cities of Europe. We have heard a lot about it and it has always been on our list of places to visit, but somehow we never got there…it was really about time. So we decided to visit this city before heading to Zaragoza for Patricia’s wedding. Turned out to be an excellent choice: plenty of things to see and do, great food, and great shopping of course J
Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
Barcelona does have the grand boulevards with the magnificent buildings and also the small streets that are available only for pedestrians and there is a modern flavor to everything.

The first building we visited was the very impressive Sagrada Familia, a magnificent church designed by Antoni Gaudí, who applied his trademark modernist style based on forms found in nature. It has been under construction since the early 1900s, and people in Barcelona are divided: some want to leave it unfinished, others push for completion. It looks like the latter group is winning, although it will take until after 2040 to complete it…
Guëll Park (Barcelona)
Our next stop was the Guëll Park, started as a residential garden village with 60 houses, but construction stopped after only two houses were sold: one to Gaudi himself, one to a close friend… In 1918 the city acquired the property and in 1922 it was opened to the public as a park. The dragon-like lizard at the center staircase is the best-known symbol of the park, together with the Serpentine Bench which twists snakelike around the plaza.

After the Guëll Park we made a long walk to the Plaza del Musica. On the way we passed by more famous buildings like Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera) and our favorite: the colorful Casa Batlló. Of course we ended the day with shopping in La Rambla, a tapas dinner and a lot of top-class chocolate!
Kostis & Patricia's wedding
The next day, we went to Zaragoza for the wedding of Patricia and Kostis, good friends from when we were living in Paris. She was the last of Diana’s AIESEC team to get married, so we had extra reasons to celebrate! It started with a nice mixed Catholic/ Orthodox ceremony, followed by a reception and dinner in a beautiful location just outside the city. Great food, lots of wine, lots of dancing, old friends reunited again after a long time… excellent evening!

Unfortunately, we had to wake up again early, to catch our flight back to Amsterdam and onwards to Singapore. Too soon! 

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