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Our days in SE Asia are numbered, and as they draw to an end we have found ourselves drifting among the islands of the Indo-Pacific. Well, not drifting in the literal sense, more like hopping from island to island without knowing how long we will stay nor where we will go next.

The last two weeks have been spent on two islands that sit in stark contrast to one another, yet have both found a special place in our hearts. Our post today is a tale of two islands: the bustling island-nation of Singapore and the once famous, but now somewhat forgotten, Tioman Island.

The Isle of Singapore

Like so many of our favorite stops on this RTW expedition, we hadn’t initially intended on visiting Singapore. Its reputation amongst young backpackers is that it is far too expensive and really not worth the time. We heard similar complaints about Hong Kong and enjoyed it, so when we found a cheap flight on Tiger Airlines, we opted to make Singapore our launch pad into Indonesia.

After spending months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao & Thailand, Singapore hit us like a sack of bricks.  “Wait, that’s the price for one beer? I thought that was for a whole pitcher.” The rumors about steep prices couldn’t have been more true, but over the next few days we came to realize that Singapore is definitely worth every cent.

The first thing to catch our eye was the skyline of the city. The architecture is a perfectly woven combination of restored historical buildings, ultra-modern design, multilane highways and small public squares and parks. The city is also immaculately clean; you literally have to seek out rubbish and graffiti. This, however, may be due to the fact that nearly everything is against the law; where else will you find yourself getting fined for not flushing the toilet?

As if in symphony with the city’s complex structural design, the people of Singapore offer a diverse mix of ethnicities, cuisines, religions, cultures and languages. As is the case with most major cities, the first immigrants to Singapore formed smaller communities leaving the modern day city with a Little India, China Town and Arab Street, but the city center is far from segregated. On just one street you can walk by a mosque, temple, shrine, church and synagogue, all while hearing people speak English, Malay, Tamil, Arabic and Cantonese.

After a few days exploring Singapore’s urban sector, we were beginning to feel trapped by the concrete jungle, so we hopped on a bus across the island and headed for, you guessed it, another island. Pulau Ubin is small, sparsely developed and sits between Singapore and Malaysia. It is reachable by a 15 minute ferry and is a popular escape for Singaporeans looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fishing, and trekking make Pulau Ubin the best bet for outdoor enthusiasts visiting Singapore.

Exhausted and with sore butts, we returned to the city after a day of biking and headed to Brewerkz, our favorite watering hole in Singapore. Any beer loving person who has spent some time in Asia will tell you that stumbling across a micro-brewery is like finding an oasis in the dessert. We figured if we were going to drop some coin on beer in Singapore, better to spend it on these delicious craft brews instead of the same old watery Chang, Tiger, and Beer Lao that is found throughout the region.

As we said earlier, Singapore was supposed to be our gateway to Indonesia, but the ferry situation turned out to be more costly, time consuming and complicated than we originally anticipated. We had been hoping to do some more SCUBA diving anyway, so we decided to look into some other options…

Tioman Island – A Lesser Known Paradise

One night in Singapore, we sat at our hostel pouring over information about the best dive sites in Malaysia. The good news? There didn’t seem to be a shortage. The gold medal goes to the world-renowned Sipadan, however, due to its distant location on Borneo and the fact that diving there requires months of advanced booking, we decided on another option.

Tioman Island was made famous by the movie South Pacific and in the 1970s was included in Time Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, but in recent decades has lost much of its luster.   It was a place we’d never heard of before, but we were intrigued by the beautiful pictures of its coral reefs and seemingly easy commute from Singapore. Without giving ourselves time to think twice, we booked our tickets and were setting off to Tioman just 24 hours later.

To make a long story short, we fell in love with Tioman, spent many more days there than we intended, and could not stop SCUBA diving. Two dives turned into four, four into six, and six into nine. There are many reasons to love Tioman. First, the entire island is surrounded by a marine park with crystal clear water that gently fades into a spectrum of turquoise blue that can only be found in a true tropical paradise; perfect for diving and snorkeling. Our adventures at sea offered us glimpses of Hawksbill Turtles, Reef Sharks, Barracuda, and a seemingly endless abundance of marine life.

What’s more, the entire island is duty-free! What does that mean exactly? Tioman is one of the few places in Malaysia where you can find cheap booze and cheap tobacco, in a country that otherwise imposes a very hefty tax on these items. Shhhhhhh….don’t tell the wild party kids that have managed to ruin so many of SE Asia’s most beautiful places. Despite the duty-free aspect of Tioman, it still does not attract hoards of party-ready backpackers, but rather offers a bar scene that is a very chilled out, one where tourists and locals mingle and chat under a star-filled sky.

Furthermore, the entire island is layered with jungle that covers the land from shore to mountaintop making it virtually inaccessible by vehicle. So what’s so great about thick jungle? It’s ideal for island trekking (assuming you’ve applied a thick layer of DEET) with plenty of chance to see wildlife, ranging from monitor lizards to monkeys to the world’s largest flower.

Last but not least, the entire island offers fantastic food. OK, not the entire island, but there is an amazing BBQ seafood restaurant in Tekek village that serves up fresh snapper, prawns, marlin, barracuda, lobster and so much more, all for a ridiculously cheap price. You may be thinking “fresh fish from a marine reserve?” Don’t worry, everything they serve was caught well outside the boundaries of the Tioman Marine Park; we’re certain of this because we saw the island’s lead marine biologist and conservation team eating there every night.

While relatively close together, Singapore and Tioman are worlds apart. Singapore offers all of the luxuries of an international hub, but comes along with traffic, high prices and over development. Tioman can leave you feeling a bit isolated, with nothing more than small villages speckled along its coasts, but provides a genuine island experience. Is one better than the other? We don’t think so; they’re just two different islands on this planet we all call home.

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We have finally arrived in SE Asia! While we always strive to live in the moment, we have secretly been longing to get to this part of the world since we left home. Stories of the region’s hectic streets, friendly people and incredible street food make it a legend in hostels around the world. These tales of a backpacker’s paradise sparked our interest long ago.

Our first stop in SE Asia was Hanoi, Vietnam. Our first impression? Holy motorbikes Batman! When we went to Marrakech, we thought the traffic was crazy. Then, we came to know the streets of China, but neither prepared us for the motorbike madness that exists in Hanoi. We have heard that cities like Bangkok and Singapore make maneuvering Hanoi look like child’s play, but our first thought when we gazed upon the raging river of motorbikes was, “WTF, how are we ever supposed to cross the street?!”

Quintessential Hanoi

After a few days, we became accustomed to walking in the street (the sidewalks are too cluttered to actually walk on) and weaving our way between bikes and cars. Our heart rates gradually lowered, and we started soaking up the good vibes that flow through this city.

The word sidewalk shouldn’t be used in Hanoi. They are all unofficial parking lots, shops, or restaurants.

Before arriving in Vietnam, we had heard stories from other travelers about tourists getting fleeced right and left. More than one person told us that they will never return to Vietnam; it made the Vietnamese sound very unwelcoming and unfriendly. We found it to be the exact opposite. Every local we met in Hanoi said hello with a smile, and not one person tried to overcharge us, much less steal from us. It is the people of Hanoi that create the positive and upbeat vibe that we mentioned above.

There is no doubt that Hanoi is an epicenter of history, and although the city has a handful of tourist sights, we most enjoyed simply walking around the old town and seeing how the city works. It is really quite fascinating to see the systems that exist below the layers or chaos. We didn’t want to spend our whole time there just lounging around, so we dedicated about two half days to sightseeing at the following places.

Hỏa Lò Prison, called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs. Built by the French and used to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. Its most famous American prisoner? John McCain.

Offering of incense in front of the Temple of Literature.

Tran Quoc Pagoda in West Lake. The oldest pagoda in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum has strict visitor policies, similar to that of Chairman Mao. After having visited Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing we chose to forgo looking at another wax-covered corpse.

The One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple.

Sightseeing in Hanoi will really take it out of you. With the temperature over 30˚C and humidity close to 100%, we could only handle walking around town for a few hours at a time. Multiple showers per day, constant hydration and brief visits to buildings with air con helped us beat the heat. Many people cautioned us to not visit SE Asia in the summer because it is the hottest time of year and the rainy season, but to us, the frequent afternoon downpours are always a welcomed occurrence.

One of our favorite mid-day activities in Hanoi was stopping for some “bia hoi.” Bia hoi is Vietnamese for “fresh beer” and is quite possibly the cheapest draft beer in the world at 5,000 Dong (25 cents) per glass. It is not the most flavorful drink around, but in the sweltering heat it really makes you smack your lips and say “ahhhhhh” as your body temperature drops a couple degrees.

Our favorite bia hoi

There are many places around the city to quench your thirst, but on our first day in Hanoi we found a spot that we liked and kept coming back. We spent many hours there chatting with the owner, playing with her son and drinking with the locals. After a few days, we felt like part of a small community there and were sad to say goodbye.

Never drink a bia hoi without a snack. Shrimp chips, peanuts, and pork in banana leaves seem to be the munchies of choice.

Can you find Mike?

One of the things that we liked most about Hanoi is that it is easy to distinguish the tourist traps from the genuinely local places. We have learned that the backpacker trail through Vietnam is well defined, with Hanoi being a hub for nearly all tourists that visit the country; therefore, Western-oriented establishments are ubiquitous. Ones that consist of very small plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk are a good indication that you are in for the real deal. These types of restaurants are the definition of hole in the wall. Sometimes they have a small portable cooking station on site, other times your order is relayed via cell phone to a kitchen down the street, and 10 minutes later someone comes walking down the block with your meal in hand.

Check out this kitchen. The health department in Hanoi must have very strict standards.

We didn’t know a whole lot about Vietnamese cuisine before arriving, and while we don’t have a firm grasp on the regional specialties just yet, we certainly got our fill of phở while in Hanoi. We were on a mission, just like Anthony Bourdain, to find the best bowl of phở around. We ate it every day for at least one meal, and came across a wide variety of styles. There is no way to decide on the best bowl of phở in Hanoi, but there are a few indicators that will let you know you’ve found a great phở spot, which Bourdain’s video explains in hilarious detail (watch it here). We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Phở, phở, glorious phở.

Hanoi electrified us, kept us on our toes and eventually made us feel at home. While getting advice from fellow travelers can be an incredible resource, the moral of the story here is that you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. The only way to know for sure whether or not you are going to like a city is to experience it for yourself.

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Before diving into Shanghai itself, we must talk about how we got there. There are many ways to get from place to place in China; for the budget backpacker, overnight trains are the best option. We opted for “hard-sleeper” beds, which, as the name would suggest, are quite firm and stacked three-high in a car without doors or curtains; basically a moving bunk room with 70+ beds. While it’s not the most private way to travel, it is actually quite fun! Small tables and folding chairs line the corridor, making for a very communal feel. All of the train cars are equipped with steaming hot water taps, and we learned early on that dried noodle bowls are the meal of choice for long train rides. Add a deck of cards, a good book and a flask of whiskey to the mix, and you’re set with all you need to make the most of the 23 hour, 950 mile journey.

I’m on the night train!

Our bunk mates eating the standard Chinese night train fare of cup-o-noodles.

We spent our first day in Shanghai visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum. It has to be one of the most oddly located museums in the world. With the address and Chinese name in hand, we arrived at what we thought was the entrance. At first, we weren’t certain we had found the right place as it was just a big apartment complex. The security guard handed us a business card that pointed us around the corner and down a floor to the basement of building #3.

Who would have thought this was home to Shanghai’s Propaganda Poster Museum?

The museum houses a very extensive collection of original Chinese Communist Party propaganda posters. Almost all of these posters were destroyed following Mao’s death, so a collection this size is quite remarkable. The dates of the posters range form 1930-1979; the imagery and verbiage used on the posters are both powerful and thought-provoking. We highly recommend visiting this museum on your next stop in Shanghai.

Viva la revolucion!

“Grandpa Mao” as they refer to him in China.

Possibly Shanghai’s most well know attraction, The Bund, is a historic part of city with predominantly European architecture. It was home to many important residents, businesses, and government offices during the British rule of the city. Today the area is a meeting ground of old and new. Sitting just across the Huangpu River from The Bund are countless ultra-modern skyscrapers that fill Shanghai with neon lights each evening. For us, the view was somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong, but let there be no mistake about it, Shanghai is mainland China through and through, not an SAR.

The Bund after nightfall

View of the Pudong skyline (East bank of the Huangpu River) from The Bund.

Another remnant of Shanghai’s colonial past is the neighborhood known as The French Concession. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept mansions and designer fashion stores transport you far from the chaos of the city center, and can almost convince you that you are in Europe not Asia. We strolled through the area one afternoon and stumbled upon something we had been missing since we left home, a micro-brewery. Yes! Any cold beer goes down easily on a hot, humid day, but the beer in China leaves a lot to be desired. Being from Portland and Denver (the micro-brew hubs of America) we require a good craft beer from time to time; Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession fit the bill.

These red and pale ales tasted incredible to our taste buds after months of watery, light beer.

Each region in China boasts its own local flavor. In Shanghai, the regional specialty is dumplings. Every restaurant and street cart sells their own version. We came to love the dumpling vendor on the corner next to our hostel, and stopped by every morning for breakfast. We never quite figured it out, but each day we paid a different price for the same dumplings. It seems that China is one of those places where you can decide what you’re going to pay for a product; hand the person your money with confidence and they will likely accept it with a smile.

Rice dumplings – the real breakfast of champions

Beyond dumplings, we enjoyed many other delicious treats from vendors on the street in Shanghai. Some of our favorites were two well know dishes in the western world, fried noodles (chow mein) and fried rice (chow fahn) prepared on a makeshift, propane-powered stove top that was attached to a bicycle.  Ready in less than two minutes, these dishes were phenomenal late-night snacks.

Tasty chow mein, MSG and all.

Last but not least, KTV. We had heard a lot about it since arriving in China, and were excited to partake in this beloved Chinese pastime. One Friday night in Shanghai we met up with a friend of a friend to see what KTV was all about. Essentially, it is karaoke, but is much different than the karaoke bars found in the US. Forget the dive bar with a large screen where you sing in front of a crowd of strangers. Now, picture walking into the lobby of a high-rise, heading up the elevator, exiting into a fancy corridor of numbered rooms. Behind each door: couches, a flat-screen TV, song selection computer, microphones, bottles of liquor, snacks, dice games and, most importantly, a good group of friends. We stayed at KTV with our new Chinese friends until 4am, and it was truly a night to remember.

The KTV crew

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Ever heard of Pilsner beer? How about Budweiser? Unless you have been living under or rock, the answer is likely yes. Our journey into the heart of Czech beer country led us to the birthplace of Pilsner and the home of the original Budweiser beer. As beer lovers, it was a lot of fun to tour the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery (a.k.a. Pilsner Urquell) in Plzeň and check out the Budweiser Budvar facility in the town of České Budějovice; that being said, our vote for best beer in the world remains with American craft brewers. Sorry Czech Republic, but the creativity and variety of beer in the States is simply amazing.

Gates leading into Pilsner Urquell

Tasting unpasteurized, unfiltered Pilsner Urquell straight out of the barrel. Only place you can get this stuff on earth.

Nice and heady Budweiser Budvar. We prefer less foam, but when in Rome…

While the Czech Republic was not the beer mecca we had envisioned, our route was still filled with many other delights: among them, the pork knee and Czech hockey. A knee may not sound very appetizing, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Mike became nearly obsessed with trying this traditional Czech dish after watching an episode of No Reservations; when he finally got his fill in Plzeň…well, you might just say he was in “hog heaven.”

Roasted pork knee (not pictured: Mike, drooling)

In most of Europe, and the world for that matter, football (soccer) is the king of sports. Not the case in the Czech Republic. Hockey reigns supreme. By pure chance, our visit to the country coincided with the playoffs of their pro hockey league; so, we decided to check out a game in České Budějovice. What a time. Football may not be the Czech sport of choice, but the fans are no less enthusiastic: drums, horns, flares, and all.

HC Mountfield vs. HC Liberec at Budvar Arena

Face off following one of the many fights that broke out on the ice that night

The Beer Route through Plzeň and České Budějovice was great, but the real gem of our trip to southern Bohemia had nothing to do with beer at all, it was a small town called Český Krumlov. For many it is just a day trip from České Budějovice, but we made a long weekend out of it. Learning from the many expats that we met during our visit, we took to calling it “The Krumlov,” and we must say that we think it is one of the most photogenic places in Europe.

Český Krumlov from the castle tower

The Vltava River winding through Český Krumlov

In addition to its looks, The Krumlov captivates you with its charm and slow-paced way of life. Just as the Vltava River delicately bends and curves around the old town, locals and tourists alike seem to walk a step slower than in the rest of the Czech Republic. Stores close at 6pm during the week, before noon on Saturday, and are closed on Sundays. At dusk, your senses come alive as a haze fills the sky from wood fired stoves; you can smell the evening setting in as fires warm the quaint village homes.

Český Krumlov Castle all lit up at night

During the day, the town seems torn between two worlds. Many streets are lined with gift shops and tour groups are common, but turn the right corner and it feels like you have traveled back in time to medieval Europe. The castle moat is still guarded in the same way it has been for centuries. Forget the armed guards, try live bears!

One last picture in The Krumlov

It seems that as we let go of planning and set itineraries, we stumble upon more hidden travel destinations. At first, traveling in this style had us both a bit on edge, but with each passing day, we are beginning to appreciate the true sense of freedom that it brings.

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Last Week in Denver

It’s our last week in Denver. We’re done with work. We’re moving out of our apartment. And we’re enjoying lots of going-away parties.  With all the excitement and anticipation of leaving, we’re beginning to realize how much we’re going to miss this place. People often ask us if we’ll be returning to Colorado after our RTW trip, and the honest answer is we don’t know. A major goal of our trip is to live in the moment, which means making as few future plans as possible.

That being said, Colorado is an awesome place! For those who have never been, get here! For those who live here, appreciate it!  As we get all reminiscent and sappy about our years here, we wanted to share some of our favorites for locals and tourists alike…

While we still have a lot of the world to experience, Colorado has to be one of the coolest places out there.

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