All posts by sarahmenlove

“Fitness” Made Me Infertile

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I’ve contemplated for many months if I should publish this or not. It’s a story I’m not necessarily proud of, but at the same time, I am proud because it’s my journey and I’ve come a long way. Besides, if my experience can help just one soul out there, it’s worth the vulnerability of exposing this to the world.

So here goes nothing. Put your seatbelt on, because this one is quite the ride.

For the past ten years, I’ve been slowly killing myself.

Weapon of choice? Kale and running shoes. No, really. This is true. The ironic part? I thought I was the healthiest human in the world. I was toned, I had a six pack, I never skipped my 5-mile daily run, and I did crunches and push ups every night before I went to bed. I ate heaping piles of “lean protein” and vegetables and devoured berries, bananas and apples daily.
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People told me I was skinny, and complimented me on my ripped arms and quick WOD times in crossfit. I could beat the guys at pull-up contests and I could hold a plank for 6 minutes straight. I was known as the fitness girl, and I was unstoppable.
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Occasionally I would wonder if I was pushing myself too hard. That maybe when I had a sinus infection or a pulled muscle I should skip my morning workout routine, but I was addicted. I was addicted to the rush of pushing myself physically and mentally, and I liked how I looked. I was comfortable with the number on the scale and I secretly felt proud of myself when I turned down a piece of cake because that meant I was healthy.

My mind was sick.

And so was my body.

I hadn’t had a natural period since I was 14, but I’d been on birth control for years, so I figured everything was fine.

I began to have horrible digestion issues and was diagnosed with IBS and SIBO. Of course I didn’t correlate this with my low weight and malnourished body. Instead I restricted further, cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, all processed foods, believing that these were the culprits behind my gut distress. Things only got worse.
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When I went off birth control and didn’t have a period, I got my hormone levels tested. My blood work came back reflecting the levels of a post-menopausal woman. I was 22. I was advised to get a DEXA scan to test for weakened bones because of the lack of estrogen in my body. That’s when I learned that I had osteopenia. If I didn’t do something to improve my bone strength, I would have osteoporosis at the ripe old age of 30. I was devastated and scared. I heard that weight-bearing exercise helped strengthen bones, so I increased my exercise, jogging the track while carrying 20 pound plates. I truly believed I was helping myself to heal.

I was able to sustain my rigid lifestyle for those 9 or 10 years, but then, at 23 years old, my body hit a wall. I started to have chest pain, weird heart palpitations. I wasn’t sleeping well, my hair was thinning, I was anxious, stressed out and very unhappy.

And I wanted a baby.

But turns out you can’t make a baby when you’re infertile. “Fitness” had robbed me of my fertility. Instead of a baby I had six-pack abs, osteopenia and hypothyroidism.

I was broken.
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After some Web MD-ing (I’ve gotten too familiar with that website) I diagnosed myself with hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) and started researching. HA occurs when your hypothalamus (a region of your brain) senses that your body doesn’t have enough resources to keep living. This can come from overexercise, under-eating, mental stress, or a combination of the three. In order to help you survive, your hypothalamus shuts off your reproductive organs, slows down your thyroid and down-regulates your metabolism. That way your brain and heart have enough energy to keep you alive.

Our bodies are so smart.

In my research, I learned that in order to reverse HA, I needed to make my body trust me again. I needed to gain weight and stop exercising. I needed to let my body have what it had been craving for years…food and rest. And lots of it.

I’m a very determined person, so I told myself I could do this. I sat on my bum and ate ice cream for two months. I cut all exercise besides walking and yoga. I gained 20 lbs. It was hard.

But I started to feel good. I had energy. My heart palpitations started to disappear. I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt in years because I was no longer a slave to my morning workout routine. I no longer planned my day around my workouts, instead I did yoga if I wanted to and if I didn’t feel like it, I’d skip that day.

It was hard to watch my body change. Good bye abs, hello cellulite. My clothes didn’t fit anymore, and I felt huge. But occasionally I would get a glimpse of my now slightly curvier body and think “hmm, this is how a woman is supposed to look.”

AFTER

(Note: these are the two and ONLY mirror selfies I will ever publish to the internet, so…ya. Don’t judge.)

I almost gave up, multiple times. When it had been 6 months and still no period, I started to slip back into my old exercise routine, figuring it was too late for me to get my fertility back. I had ruined my body and now I had to pay the consequences for my decisions.

But just as I was giving up for good, I stumbled on a book called “No Period, Now What.” It was just the push of motivation that I needed. With the incredible support of the online HA community and the knowledge and motivation the book offered, I decided to go “all-in” for a few more months and see what happened.

I took a deep breath, and settled in for the long haul. No exercise. Minimum of 2,500 calories a day.

Rinse and repeat.

I’ve been facing this fight for 9 months now and my battle is not yet over. I still have to wake up every. single. day. with the determination to eat ALL THE THINGS and don’t stop till I’ve won. I know my body is waiting for me to get to its “happy weight”…the weight where it finally trusts me again. Only then will it give me my fertility back.

That day might come tomorrow, or it may come with another 20 lbs of weight gain. Only God knows my plan, so for now, I just wake up and try to face each new day with faith and a big bowl of ice cream. It’s so hard to be patient. It’s hard to trust the process and be ok with the weight gain. But I know it will all work out how it’s supposed to.
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Looking back, sometimes I feel angry at myself for letting this happen in the first place. But then I remember it was all done in innocence. I never meant to harm my body. I had just compared myself to my “skinny” friends and saw photos of “fit” people on Instagram and told myself I wanted that. I truly believed I was living a healthy lifestyle. Oh how wrong I was.

True “health” and beauty are so much more than having 6-pack abs and wearing size 2 jeans. Who ever decided that was beautiful anyways? Just because society has put a stamp of approval on restrictive diets and skinny girls taking gym bathroom mirror selfies doesn’t mean that’s something we should strive for. I did strive for that and guess where it landed me? In the doctor’s office with weak bones, infertility and a disordered mindset of what’s healthy and beautiful.

Now I am the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. I kissed my six-pack abs goodbye months ago. I had to throw out my entire wardrobe and I canceled my gym membership. (For now at least).

But I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life, because now I am free. I no longer base my worth on how many calories I did or didn’t eat, how many miles I did or didn’t run or how my skinny jeans do or don’t fit. Now I value myself because I am a daughter of God and a wife to an incredible husband. I am meant to be a mom someday and that’s what really matters. I value and respect my strong body that is so, so forgiving and resilient. And I’m sorta thankful for the extra fat on my body because it means I am healthy, happy and full of life.
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I’m not saying I’m done with “fitness.” Oh, heavens no! I will always love being active. Once my body is healed, I will continue to hike, run, lift heavy weights and rock climb. But now I have a much more balanced idea of what “fitness” looks like. It doesn’t control me like it used to. Now I see fitness as a luxury that I get to enjoy when my body is rested and properly fueled. Everything has changed for me. And for those girls out there who are struggling with a toxic mindset of what “fit” and “healthy” is, I pray things can change for you too.

I hope you can stop comparing yourself to photoshopped models and Instagram fitness accounts. UNFOLLOW THEM. Get them out of your phone, out of your head, out of your life. We need to stop forcing our bodies to conform to our idea of what beauty looks like. Instead, honor what your body wants. If it needs ice cream, eat the dang ice cream and don’t look back. If it needs a day, a month, a year away from the gym, honor that.

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Throw your scale away and eat food. Lots of it. And please, by all means, don’t go down the road I did. I learned the hard way so you don’t have to. You are more than the size of your body! You are YOU, so love that, flaunt that and live the life God intends you to live, which I can promise you, is not one full of celery and treadmills.

*Note: Edited on 08/14/17 to add “lean protein” because of some comments I received. I wanted to clarify that I actually was eating animal protein before my weight gain, not just fruits and veggies.
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Peru Take 2

Soroche_combo from Romero Media on Vimeo.

Welp, this post is a year and a half overdue. However, I wanted to document our trip to Peru (second time back!) because it was an amazing few weeks that deserve to be remembered.

This post won’t be as detailed as my usual travel recap because it’s been over a year since we returned…I have all the details written down in my journal, but I wanted to throw a bit of content up here just to post my fave pics and get the itch out of me. I’ve been wanting to post about this trip since we returned, but, LIFE.

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Pat and I have made the decision to not return to the same place more than once (for now at least) because the world is too big to spend our money seeing the same sights over and over.

However, we made an exception this time, because a company hired us to film a video for them in Peru. To read about our last trip to Peru, check out this post and this post.

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We spent a week before the trek and video shoot exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley with my parents. We stayed in the town of Urubamba at a GORGEOUS resort. Traveling with my parents is a vastly different experience than traveling as poor, cheap, newly weds. (Three years is still newly wed, right? We’ll ride that excuse as long as possible).

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They’re adorable. (My parents, I mean. Not the guinea pigs…Although I guess they’re a little bit cute too.) Let’s just not talk about why the guinea pigs are in that cage. (Insert sad/disgusted face because we tried them and they really don’t taste good).

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Highlights of that week included:

  • Buying giant Andean corn and cheese from the little ladies on the street.

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  • Shopping the markets and interacting with the locals.

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  • Getting the real authentic experience by hiring a local to drive us around the Sacred Valley. We may or may not have gotten her van stuck in the mud. Also, COWS IN THE ROAD. (That’s my husband who ditched the van in an attempt to clear the road. It was hilarious and took much longer than you’d think to move ONE measly cow out of the way. Cows are strong and scary.)

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  • Getting some custom-made Peruvian boots!

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  • Watching Patrick impress the littles with his “magic” tricks. So cute.

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Hiking the ruins with my parents and just spending time with them exploring that beautiful country is a memory I’ll always cherish. They’re amazing parents and the most generous humans you’ll ever meet. THANK YOU Lurd and Papa D!

They flew back to Utah, and the second half of our trip was spent at an incredible mountain lodge…Llanganuco Lodge. The owner, Charlie, spoiled us with delicious food and fire-lit bedrooms. Our dream-team crew (Jess, Shaun and Taylor) joined us there, and we spent the next week or so trekking, filming and having an AMAZING time.

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We did the Santa Cruz Trek, which was 4 days long. We reached an altitude of 15,000 feet! Woof. That does weird things to your body.

But, we all finished the trek in one piece and have a fun video to show for it. (See video at top of page). I’m not writing a lot about the trek because I figure the video is a better recap anyways. Gotta love that movie magic.

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But most of all, gotta love PERU.

P.S. If anyone is planning a trip to Peru and has specific questions, feel free to contact me!

my recipes have moved!

When I first started this blog, I had the intention of sharing all my favorite recipes on it. However, over the years it evolved into more of a place to document my adventures and most memorable journeys. So, I decided to create a separate blog specifically for recipes! I joined forces with my insanely-talented mom (best cheffess in town) and we started Kiwi and Carrot…a food blog for (mostly) healthy recipes made with fresh and natural ingredients!

 

So if you’re bored with your food routine of cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and spaghetti for dinner, we’ve got your back. Head on over to Kiwi and Carrot to check out what we’ve been making and eating!

 

Bike CANCO-Behind the Scenes

Who would have thought that an 18-day road trip down the U.S. Pacific Coast would have such a huge impact on my life?

I’m permanently changed.

On September 1, my husband Patrick and I boarded a plane headed northwest. We landed in Seattle, WA, and met up with Patrick’s friends Jesse and Jeff. The four of us took over the “Dragon Wagon…” a slightly smelly, oversized van that we’d learn to call home for the next month…

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*Cool fact: The “Dragon Wagon” was actually Imagine Dragons’ first tour van when they were just starting their band! We decided to recreate this picture they took in the van…I just need some brown, curly hair and a beard and this pic would be dead on. 😉

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So…some background for you. A few years ago, Jesse lost his younger brother Tyler to pediatric cancer. Since then, Jesse and his family, along with the help of the band Imagine Dragons, have created an incredible foundation called The Tyler Robinson Foundation. TRF helps families deal with the finical and emotional burdens of pediatric cancer. It really is an incredible foundation, and I feel blessed to have been a part of it for a month.

Ok, back to our journey…

We followed Jesse and Jeff on their bikes as they rode from Canada to Mexico along the Pacific Coast Highway. 1,500 miles in 18 days! Any cyclist will tell you that’s an impressive feat. And the best part? Neither Jesse nor Jeff are cyclists. They learned to clip in the day before we left. What a hoot. Pat and I were the support crew and the film crew. We threw Gatorades and ProBars at the boys while they rode and put together a couple of videos documenting the trip.

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Along the way, we stopped at 10 different families who’re struggling with the horrendous costs of pediatric cancer, surprising them each with a $10,000 grant. Honestly, no words can adequately describe how humbling this experience was. To learn the stories of these sweet families, and then watch as they realize what we just handed them…

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To the parents, $10,000 isn’t just a sum of money. It’s freedom from their day jobs so they can actually spend time with their dying child. It’s the realization that they can now afford another round of chemo to try and save that child’s life. It’s relief and hope and a chance at survival. Watching those mom’s faces when we pulled out those giant checks was an incredibly humbling and emotional experience.

As I said, words really can’t do this justice. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out the video Pat and I put together of our experience…

Behind the Scenes:

It wasn’t all sweat and tears. We got to do a little sight seeing along the way too! We stopped in some amazing towns and saw some beautiful places…here are just a couple of the highlights:

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Getting to see MY BROTHER ON HIS MISSION! Oh my gosh I was so nervous and excited. I felt like I was going on a first date or something…I hadn’t seen him in over a year! This dinner made my life.

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Indulging in the “tasting platter” at Salt and Straw. It’s this incredible ice cream place in downtown Portland that serves crazy weird, but delicious flavors. I sampled garam masala with cinnamon cauliflower (which just seemed wrong to be eating Indian-spices in ice cream), blue cheese with pear and honey lavender. After a long debate and lots of sample spoons, we ended up choosing four scrumptious flavors… (Left to Right: Chocolate with potato chips and cupcake chunks, strawberry-balsamic with cracked pepper, salted caramel almond with chocolate ganache and carrot cake.)

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Devoured in seconds.

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Ordering a giant (organic of course) Falafel pita wrap from the food trucks in downtown Portland!

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Tillamook

It would be a crime to drive through Tillamook without stopping at the Cheese and Ice Cream Factory…those waffle cones though.

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The Redwoods

We camped for a night in the Redwoods. Being under those MAMMOTH trees really makes you feel small and insignificant. We got some beautiful shots while we were there and even snuck in a couple of short hikes!

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San Francisco

Of course we had to get some drone shots of the bridge. We also did a time-lapse, so we got to watch the sun fade behind the hill as the city lights slowly came to life.

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One of the families we surprised had a “Make a Wish” on the same day. The girl’s wish was to meet the 49ers, so we got to be there for that. We took a tour of their facility and ate in their INCREDIBLE cafeteria. Those boys are spoiled, let me tell you. Pat and I felt like we didn’t deserve to meet the 49ers, because let’s be honest here, we don’t care about football one eentsie teensie bit. But, it was still a cool experience and for a few hours we got to pretend like we care…

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Cute Coastal California Towns

This was the view from my morning run in an adorable coastal town we stayed at for a night.

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Filming water droplets in a puddle…we get some weird looks from people sometimes.

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Biking Big Sur

OK. If you’ve never driven Big Sur before, you HAVE to put it on your list. It was spectacular. I even put in a few miles on the bike! Gotta love that helmet. Not to mention the spandex…

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It wasn’t all fun and games though. Videography can be VERY stressful at times. You depend completely on your gear working properly, and sometimes it just doesn’t cooperate.

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But in the end, we made it to Mexico.

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Along the way, we made some unforgettable memories, met some inspiring people and had an epic adventure in the Dragon Wagon.

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I’m a better person because of this experience. I have a greater appreciation for my own health, life and belief in God. I will always hold on to this experience as one of the greatest 18 days of my life. Thank you Jesse and Jeff for letting us tag along on that incredible adventure. May the Dragon Wagon days live on…at least in memory if nothing else.

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Canada

Recently I had the opportunity to travel through Canada with my family. We drove through Glacier Park in Montana, then rented an RV in Calgary and spent the week exploring two of Canada’s beautiful national parks–Jasper and Banff. WOW I may have to move to Canada. The landscape is absolutely stunning.

Here’s a quick video I put together that pretty much sums up our 10 days living in McNeil (our RV).

If you want to see additional photos, feel free to scroll through…

Our first stop was Glacier National Park, where we took a pretty hike and ran into a few mountain goats!

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After A LOT of hours in the car, we made it to Canada!

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We made our way to Banff and enjoyed some delicious Weiners and Waffles in Waterton (a.k.a. Weinterton), which was the cutest little town with beautiful mountain lakes.

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We met up with some of our favorite people for dinner and s’mores!

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Our next stop was Jasper. It was probably my favorite place we visited because the mountains/lakes/hikes,etc. were unearthly beautiful. Like is that water real life?

Yes, it actually is. I would have thought it was photoshopped if I hadn’t seen it in person.

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A highlight of the trip was the Via Ferrata we did on our way to Jasper. There were some incredible views from the top…

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Everywhere we went, we saw something that didn’t seem to be real. Whether it was florescent-green algae, turquoise lakes or bright yellow pine needles…

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It was so fun to spend time with my whole family in Canada.The Canadian people are very hospitable, and the landscape is truly breathtaking. This trip was a dream come true for me, because we spent most of the time hiking, which I absolutely loved. Canada, you may need to accept me as a citizen sometime soon.

How and why we travel

Over the past year or so, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel the world a bit. My husband Patrick and I went to a lot of incredible places and had some truly memorable experiences. To read more about our travels, see Peru part onePeru part twoThe PhilippinesMalaysiaThailand and Vietnam.

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Quite a few people have asked me how we’re able to do this. How do we have the money and time to travel? The answer: we won the lottery and now have an endless travel fund.

I wish.

The real answer is much more complicated than that….

Why we travel

Patrick and I both share a love for adventure. We’re not satisfied with the typical routine of “normal” LIFE, because that’s what everyone does. To us, life shouldn’t be based around the monotonous expectations of the classic “American life.” You know the drill: graduate college, get a good job, go to the office every day and work your butt off so you can earn money, go home to your nice home and spend the evening paying your bills so you can keep your nice home and nice car. The perfect “American dream” life fulfilled…right???

Pat and I decided that we value experiences more than that “perfect” life of security and routine… And we found that the most memorable and beautiful experiences can be found by traveling together. Taking ourselves out of our daily routine and comfortable lifestyle tends to put things into perspective, and provides us with a new understanding of what’s important in this life.

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So. That’s why we travel. Now, what you really want to know…how in the heck do we—newly graduated, self-employed youngsters like ourselves—afford to travel to Peru, Costa Rica and all over Southeast Asia in six months without breaking the bank???

How we travel on a budget

  1. We save up.

This is the obvious one. We put traveling as a priority and budget it into our finances so we can afford to travel. This also means sacrificing other things. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I went shopping. I mean, besides for those very attractive outfits I bought in Peru and the workout shirts to wear in 100-degree Asia… (Like, please check out the outfit I’m wearing here. I won’t be offended if you sign me up for what-not-to-wear). 🙂

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  1. Pick an affordable destination.

If we’d chosen to backpack through Europe for two months instead of South America or Southeast Asia, we would’ve spent a lot more money. If you’re traveling on a budget, pick your destination carefully. Pat and I spent an average of $50 a day in Asia, which included everything (transportation, lodging, activities, food, etc.). This wouldn’t have been the case if we’d chosen a more expensive place to travel.

  1. Travel light.

Invest in a lightweight backpack and only bring the necessities. This allows you more mobility and eliminates checked baggage costs. Pat and I both LOVE our 32- liter Mammut Creon Light backpacks.

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  1. Don’t pay for flights.

OK, this one is HUGE. Patrick and I rarely spend any money on flights because we use air mile points. In order to get enough points, we “churn” credit cards. This is somewhat complicated, and you have to be really, REALLY careful because if you’re not, you can completely destroy your credit score. But, if you can manage it carefully, it saves you thousands of dollars. If you’re interested in the details of credit card churning, check out this blog to learn more.

  1. Make a budget and stick with it.

For the two months we spent traveling through Southeast Asia, we set the budget of $5,000 per couple and stuck with it. We recorded every penny we spent, and were careful not to go over our daily budget.

  1. Decide what you want to splurge on.

Going along with #5…while we did have a daily budget and tried not to go over it, we also chose to splurge on a few things, which we planned into the budget from the beginning. For example, we spent $200 each (eeek!) for a scuba dive in Sipadan, which put us waaaayyy over our budget for that day. However, we’d planned to have some more expensive days and activities, so we were able to stay within our budget in the long run.

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  1. Be creative with activities.

Activities are the most expensive part of traveling because people know tourists will pay their ridiculous prices for the experience of riding on an elephant or playing with the tigers…But if you do a little research and use your creativity, you can come up with some incredible activities that don’t cost any money at all. (Like hiking around the rice terraces of Batad…)

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  1. Research transportation options.

After activities, the next biggest expense is transportation. For each country you visit, research the different transportation options there are. Sometimes it makes sense to rent a car, other times it’s cheaper to use the public transportation. Keep in mind that buses are generally much cheaper than taxis.

  1. Travel during the off-season.

If you’re willing to put up with some not-so-ideal typhoons in Thailand :), travel during the off-season. You won’t have to deal with the hoards of tourists that descend during peak season, and prices of everything are drastically cheaper. (For example, we paid $35 each for a kayak tour in Phuket that normally costs $120 each during the peak season).

  1. Don’t book in advance.

This one is more opinion than law. Many people like to plan everything out in advance and book hotels and activities beforehand. This is totally OK, and can work out great. However, we found that where we were, hotels and activities were much cheaper once we were actually there. Online prices are always higher, and you’re not able to negotiate prices like you can in person. We saved hundreds of dollars in Asia by simply negotiating for a cheaper price. Tourist companies purposely jack prices up because dumb tourists assume it’s the right price. Don’t be afraid to play hardball when it comes to prices. Often times you’ll win…unless you’re in Vietnam, which is another story for another time…

The exception to this is booking flights. If you plan to fly between or within countries, booking these flights in advance is much cheaper than waiting until a week or so before.

  1. Live like a backpacker.

Occasional splurges are fine, but we mostly live CHEAP. We stay in cheap (a.k.a. crappy) hotels, only occasionally order drinks at meals, take buses instead of taxis, and order cheap meals. Don’t let social media fool you. We post the highlights of the trip…what we don’t show are the moldy hostel showers, long hours of exhausting traveling and four outfits total that we wear for weeks on end…backpacking is hard, but that’s the sacrifice you make if you want to travel on a tight budget.

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  1. Don’t buy water.

You’ll spend an extra $5 (at least) a day if you buy bottled water. While it’s not necessarily convenient, we saved TONS of money by filtering water. We love our Sawyer Squeeze water filters from REI…It may seem sketchy that we we’re drinking the water from our hostel bathrooms, but none of us ever got sick. Long live the water filter.

  1. Travel in a group of four.

We found that traveling in a group of four was the perfect number. We could share a taxi, stay in a “family room” (sleeps 4-5 and is cheaper than a private room), and split meals. By ordering three dishes and eating family style, we not only saved money, but we got to try a variety of dishes at each meal, which was great.

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Traveling is expensive. But, if you’re willing to budget, research and put up with some squeaky hostel beds and dingy public buses, you can have some truly memorable experiences for a reasonable price.

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Southeast Asia: Vietnam

*To read about the first part of our two-month trip, see Southeast Asia: The Philippines, Southeast Asia: Malaysia, and Southeast Asia: Thailand.

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Oh Vietnam. You are cruel, unforgiving and absolutely beautiful.

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We spent the last 14 days of our two-month adventure in Vietnam. Things were a little rocky from the beginning. The airport staff wouldn’t let us on the plane to Vietnam because the embassy didn’t send us all of our VISA papers…a fact we learned as our plane was boarding. We missed the plane and ended up spending an extra $150 to get on another flight…

Everywhere else we’d traveled in Asia hadn’t been too difficult getting around. People spoke enough English for basic communication. But nope, not Vietnam. It was a constant game of charades everywhere we went… Ordering a meal? Oh hello stinky tuna soup, we actually meant to order spring rolls.

We started our adventure in Southern Vietnam in the Mekong River Delta. We stayed at a homestay for a few days with a cute man named Thai and his family. They were all so sweet, helpful and accommodating. We had fun just relaxing at their home and exploring the area.

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Thai’s wife was an excellent cook and made us feast after feast of seafood, fresh fruit (the Mekong Delta is famous for their fruit), fried spring rolls and noodles.

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While we were there, we took a river and bike tour with Thai’s friend Ho. He was the sweetest 82-year-old who took us all over to show us the sights. He pointed out fruit trees and bought us icy cold sugar cane juice.

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My favorite part of the river tour was when it got dark and the fireflies came out. The Mekong River Delta is famous for its fireflies, and it definitely upheld that reputation for us. I’m talking hundreds of fireflies lighting up the trees like it was Christmas time.

We also spent a full day on a scooter tour through the back roads of the Mekong Delta. We ended up at a floating market, where the boats advertise their products by tying them to the end of a stick on their roof.

Of course my personal favorite was the fruit boat…

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On the way home from the floating market we stopped at an animal market where they sell any and every type of meat you can imagine. Our guide (Eie) bought us two big snakes, and Thai’s wife cooked them up for dinner that night. Besides being a little bony, they tasted pretty dang good. Beth and I ate all of it while the boys watched in disgust…

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Our next stop after the Mekong Delta was the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were built during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese women, children and soldiers lived down in the tunnels for years…we got to crawl through them and experience the cramped, dirty tunnels first-hand. No wonder the Vietnamese don’t love us Americans…

Up until that point, we’d felt very welcomed by the Vietnamese people. This all changed at the tunnels. People were straight up rude to us. They wouldn’t let us buy a shuttle pass and everyone tried to cut in front of us in line.

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While we were there, we got to shoot a M60 machine gun, which was both a cool and terrifying experience.

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Our next stop was Hanoi, where we began the most thrilling, difficult and beautiful journey yet. We rented motor scooters to drive up to Sa Pa, which was a four or five day trip. What we didn’t account for was the blazing sun, uncomfortable scooter seats and maniac drivers.

Within 15 minutes of leaving Hanoi, a cop pulled us over, took us into a little building and had us sit in chairs while he waved his baton at us. He told us we weren’t allowed to drive scooters on the bridge we were on, while Vietnamese people cruised across the bridge on their scooters. He told us he would “punish” us with a fine. It was obviously a complete scam to try and take advantage of us ignorant American tourists. When we refused to pay him, he threatened to take our scooters. We told him to go ahead and take them…

Eventually he got bored and let us go, but that was just the beginning of our adventures on the scooters.

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The first day of driving was just plain MISERABLE. I’ve never felt so heat stroked and vulnerable. The truck drivers treat scooters like ants…little creatures in their way, easily disposed of by running them off the road or just blatantly running them over…

We were truly scared for our lives. Drivers don’t look before they pull out in front of you, they don’t bother to signal when they change lanes, they run through red lights like it’s no big deal, and they pass cars around blind corners. We saw multiple accidents along the road, but the toppled gas tanker was by far the worst…

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We learned the hard way that in a battle between a motor scooter and speeding Vietnamese truck, the truck always wins. Beth and Andrew were rounding a blind corner when a giant truck came hauling around the corner in their lane while it tried to pass another car. Andrew swerved out of its way, which threw off his balance, and down they went.

Hard.

The truck didn’t even bother stopping.

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It was so scary to watch them sprawling across asphalt, their scooter skidding along beside them. Luckily there were no broken bones or serious injuries…just some gnarly road rash.

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At this point, we had no choice but to continue up toward Sa Pa. We drove slowly and were very careful around corners. We stopped for a few days in Mu Cang Chai, which ended up being one of my favorite places in Vietnam. It’s a little town in the middle of nowhere. The people there are part of an indigenous tribe called the H’mong, so they look and dress a little differently than the typical Vietnamese.

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We were the only white people there, and not one person spoke a lick of English. The struggle of finding a hostel and ordering food was comical…

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We explored the gorgeous rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai for a day or two, and then headed up to Sa Pa. The drive was incredible. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in my life, but I’ve got to say that Northern Vietnam is a tough competitor for number one.

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We spent a few days in Sa Pa, which was much more touristy than anywhere else in Vietnam, but had a fun atmosphere, good food and ENGLISH SPEAKERS! We explored more of the gorgeous terraces on our scooters, took some hikes and met some adorable people. The kids loved Pat playing magic tricks for them. Where do those rocks disappear to?!

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We decided to take the train back to Hanoi rather than braving the 10-hour scooter ride on deadly highways…

Once in Hanoi we headed to Tam Coc for more river tours, (the women steer the boats with their feet!), scooter rides, gorgeous scenery and hiking. Pat attempted the foot-steer method and ended up taking us in circles. Apparently it’s harder than it looks.

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On our way back from Tam Coc, the bus driver dropped the four of us off on the side of the freeway and told us to walk down the exit ramp. I guess they didn’t want to bother pulling off the freeway for four Americans…

For the finale of our two-month trip, we met up with our friends Shelby and Joey for a luxurious cruise through Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. We spent the next two days kayaking around gorgeous rock formations, eating gourmet five-course meals, attempting Tai Chi on the top deck at sunrise, jamming to Karaoke (Pat has a secret talent when it comes to Karaoke…) and enjoying late night card-game sessions.

Such a fun way to end our vacation…

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Vietnam was rough to say the least. But honestly, that’s what I loved about it. It’s an untouched, hidden gem that presents an exciting challenge for the English-speaking American backpacker. The ruggedness of its culture and landscape fascinated me, and I would highly recommend putting Vietnam at the top of your destination list. Just be prepared for a wild game of charades and a lot of horn honking…

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Coming Next: How to travel Asia on a budget.

Southeast Asia: Thailand

***To read about the first part of our two-month trip, see South East Asia: The Philippinesand South East Asia: Malaysia.

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Thailand didn’t disappoint.

My very generous “Grandma Beautiful” put us up in the Phuket Marriot for our first week in Thailand. After sleeping in moldy hostels with no shortage of mice and cockroaches, we felt like ROYALTY in our fluffy white beds and air-conditioned living room. We were there during typhoon season, so it rained the entire week, but that didn’t stop us from having fun.

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We took advantage of the free yoga classes the Marriott offered, which was a grand time except my baby toenail fell off during class so that was unfortunate. #humidityprobs.

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We took some bike rides, visited Railay Beach, hung out in the cute little towns, and got Thai massages, which was more of a stressful experience than a relaxing massage. Andrew got a “lady-man” as a masseuse, which scarred him for life I think…

At one point we met up with our friends Joey and Shelby, and the six of us took a kayaking tour to explore the rock formations sticking straight out of the water. Of course that was the day it rained the most.0

A definite highlight of Phuket was monkey hill. You drive up this steep hill, and all of a sudden, hundreds of monkeys are swarming the car. It’s completely unregulated and not very well known, so it was just us and the monkeys for most of it. We had some fun with those little guys, although it made me slightly nervous watching them rip their teeth into a whole pineapple like it was a juicy plum. Please don’t bite me.

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Looking back, I wouldn’t recommend spending a full week in Phuket. We only stayed the full week because we had a free Marriott to enjoy, but I think we could have seen what we wanted to see in three days or so. Phuket is very touristy and expensive compared to other parts of Thailand, so we didn’t love it.

However, we did love Northern Thailand. We spent about a week there, starting in this cute little backpacker’s town called Pai. It’s up in the mountains, so it’s relatively cool and absolutely beautiful.

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We rented motor scooters and cruised around…Pat made the mistake of trusting me to drive the scooter at one point. I was just starting to get used to that little hog when somehow I took us off the side of the road and we went down. Luckily there was minimal damage besides a few scrapes and bruises.

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We also swam in a waterfall, went fishing for Piranhas (we didn’t catch a thing) and enjoyed the delicious food sold at the night market. I loved Pai.

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The only bummer was that Pat and I had awful colds while we were there. *Note to self: NEVER take Ambien while on malaria pills, especially if you have a fever. Pat was hallucinating the entire night…he thought the Thai government had him strapped in a hospital bed and were using his body to smuggle objects out of Thailand. He kept waking up and asking me where the doctors and bad guys were. Rough night.

After Pai we headed to Chiang Mai, where we met up with Andrew’s buddy Wadda, who lives in Bangkok. He was a great tour guide…he took us to hang out with tigers and snuggle up with snakes. It’s crazy what people let you do outside of the U.S.

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(This is Wadda)

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My face. I’m not even nervous. 😉

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One of my favorite parts of Chiang Mai was the Thai cooking class we took. The food in Thailand was INCREDIBLE, so I was super excited to learn how to make some of the traditional Thai dishes. (Coconut soup, Panang curry, Tom Yum soup and mango sticky rice were just a few of my favs).

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The elephant refuge was another highlight of the trip for me. We got to ride them, bathe them and feed them bananas. Our cute elephant was named Mai Lan but Pat and I called her “The Black Mamba” because she was the biggest elephant there. She almost stepped on Pat’s toe while we were bathing her, which would have left him with only nine little stubbers…luckily his foot moved faster than Mai Lan’s, so we avoided that catastrophe.

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(Me falling off Mai Lan’s back…)

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We ended our Thailand trip with a couple of days in Bangkok. Honestly, I wasn’t the biggest fan. It was just another big, dirty city…but we did see some cool things.

Wadda gave us the ultimate tour of his hometown…We went to the Grand Palace, walked through lots of street markets and temples, watched a Thai Boxing match, met up with Joey and Shelby again and visited China Town. Wadda ordered dinner for us in China Town and didn’t tell us what it was till after we’d eaten it. Big mistake. We unknowingly ate shark fin soup, fish gas bladder, chicken heart, and the worst, bird nest vomit. The bird throws up its food to make a nest, then people (and ignorant tourists) eat it. Not OK.

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Thailand was amazing. If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, put it on your must-visit list!

The last country we visited was Vietnam. If only we’d known what we were getting ourselves into…

Coming soon!

 

Southeast Asia: Malaysia

***To read about the first part of our two-month trip, see Southeast Asia: The Philippines.

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We arrived in Kota Kinabalu after a very frustrating seven-hour plane delay. Curse you Air Asia and your crappy food vouchers and awful customer service. Also, sorry (but not sorry) airline workers whom Beth and I yelled at. Hanger brings out the worst in us apparently…

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We decided to turn our trip through Borneo into a giant road trip, starting in KK and making a giant circle down to Semporna (a scuba diving town), stopping along the way to see the sites, and ending back in KK. We rented a car and named it Termi—short for Termite. It was a tiny thing with skinny little wheels and strange rattling noises. At one point Beth and I had to get out of the car and help push it up a hill because it didn’t have enough power to make it to the top. Watching the boys try to drive stick on the opposite side of the road was pretty dang entertaining.

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(Not the best pic of Termi, but you get the idea…)

Our first stop was Mount Kinabalu National Park. We spent the night there and went on some short hikes the next morning. It was raining the whole time, so we didn’t get to see much of the surrounding mountains. However, we did find an adorable green jellybean at the top… (Sorry Beth, couldn’t resist.)

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Next we went to Poring to visit their “famous” hot springs. Go there if you like swimming in root beer-colored water….

For dessert that night, I ordered a scoop of chocolate ice cream from a little shop and asked them to put peanut butter on it. They looked at me like I was crazy but agreed to do it. They handed me a cup of ice cream with a scoop of peanut butter and a scoop of butter on top! Apparently, in Southeast Asia, peanut butter is just called “peanut.”

Lesson learned.

The next day we met up with a girl named Coral to trek into a jungle camp called Lupa Masa. Coral had a nice aroma of B.O. and mildew…just the classic jungle-living, granola-eating anthropologist. She was very nice though…she led us into the jungle, through the trees, across bridges suspended over waterfalls and through ankle-deep jungle streams. We arrived at the camp and settled in to our 5-star accommodations complete with mosquito nets and bamboo walls.

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We spent that evening and part of the next day swimming in waterfalls, taking night-walks to see insects, reading our books and exploring the jungle. The highlight of Lupa Masa was probably seeing the five-foot snake that slithered its way into camp.

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The worst part of Lupa Masa was THE SQUIRELL. I’ve always disliked squirrels. They pick on me. They’re incredibly unpredictable and those beady little eyes and chirping squeals are just creepy. The squirrel of Lupa Masa only reaffirmed my hatred for those little creatures. While we were out for a hike, a squirrel chewed through my backpack and stole my bag of peanuts—the same peanuts I spent 45 minutes shelling the night before. How inconsiderate. Worst animal award goes to squirrels, no question about it.

Our next stop after Lupa Masa was the Kinabatangan River. We stayed in a little town called Suka and went on a river tour the next morning. Not gonna lie, it wasn’t very impressive. Everyone raves about the crazy wildlife you see along the river. During those two hours, we saw a couple proboscis monkeys and a bird or two. Wa-wa-wa. It was beautiful though…

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After our over-priced flop of a river tour, we decided to move on from the Kinabatangan and head to Semporna, which is a small city at the bottom tip of Borneo famous for scuba diving. We had a few days to kill before our dive, so we took a boat ride out to the island of Mabul. Mabul is a tiny little island off the coast—we walked around the entire thing in 30 minutes…

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It was sad but interesting to see the uneven distribution of wealth on the island…A small portion of the island is dedicated to 5-star resorts with gorgeous stilt houses, clean water and pristine beaches.

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The “real” island, where the locals live, is a trashy mess of burning garbage, shack houses and junk. It’s really sad to see the locals throwing old plastic diapers and cans into the ocean. Even sadder to see five-year-old boys smoking cigarettes under the stairwells…

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Directly in front of our lodge, we found an incredible snorkel spot called Lobster Wall. We saw some amazing wild life and bright-colored coral.

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At night we wandered around the village trying local treats like purple bread and sweet baby bananas.

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That night we slept outside on the deck of our lodge because the rats just weren’t respecting our personal space. Like we’re talking crawling across Beth’s back and running up and down our bedposts. Sometimes backpacking is not a glamorous experience…

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The highlight of our entire time in Borneo was definitely Sipadan, which is a famous dive off the coast of Semporna. The dive costs a fortune, but we decided to splurge and oh baby, it was worth every penny. There were turtles everywhere we looked. They’d let you get pretty close, so you could see the little wrinkles on their necks and stare into their wise, beady eyes.

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We swam through GIANT schools of jack fish, we saw schools of parrot fish (fish that are bigger than me and poop A LOT, as I learned after swimming underneath them…), we saw a whale shark, beautiful coral, colorful fish and tons of white-tipped sharks. Such an amazing experience. In fact, I think it may have ruined scuba diving for us, because any other dive just won’t compare to that. 😉

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On our way back to KK, we spent another night in Poring. Apparently, there was a 6.0 magnitude earthquake near Mount Kinabalu earlier that day. We felt shock waves from it all night, so we kept waking up to miniature earthquakes. I guess a group of Canadian tourists had climbed to the top of Mt. Kinabalu and ran around naked. The Malaysian government blames them for the earthquake because they “angered the gods…” They were being held by the government and not allowed to leave the country. Hilarious.

We also got fish “massages”–not your typical massage. You get in a river and let giant fish bite your dead skin off. The boys got out of the river with tiny blood blisters all over their bodies. Beth and I opted for the foot massage only but we let them suck fish food out of our hands. One got my whole pinky finger in its mouth before I managed to pull it out…

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We flew out of Borneo and spent the last few days in West Malaysia, where we went to the Cameron Highlands. It reminded me of a European Park City that’s not quite as nice. We took some beautiful jungle hikes, ate some incredible Indian food (hello MINT curry with warm and chewy N’aan bread…) and explored some gorgeous tea tree plantations.

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Our last stop in Malaysia was Penang, which is famous for it’s food. We had so much fun walking the street markets and trying all the delicious fruits, seafood and Malaysian specialties (like chicken foot soup–mmmm).

I love fruit to the point of obsession.

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Only in Asia….

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And now, off to Thailand. (Coming soon!)

P.S. Thank you Andrew and Patrick who contributed some of these photos!

Southeast Asia: The Philippines

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For months before we left, I anticipated May 9th with both hesitation and excitement. Backpacking for two months through Southeast Asia is a serious commitment…at least it was to me. Leading up to our trip I heard a lot of doubtful remarks from people: “It’s going to be sooo hot and uncomfortable.” “You’re going to get sick from the food.” “It’s going to cost way more than you think…” It’s easy to let those opinions start sinking into your own head.

But now that we’re home from our two-month adventure, I can say with satisfaction that we proved those people wrong.

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Our crew: me, my husband Patrick, my brother Andrew and his wife Beth. The four amigos. While in Asia, we traveled to four different countries and spent about two weeks in each.

Our first stop was the Philippines. From Salt Lake, we flew to Manila and took a 10-hour night bus to Banaue—a small village in northern Philippines.

After my miserable experience in Peru with the night buses, I’d promised myself I wouldn’t take one again. Little did I know that night buses would become a regular treat during our two months in Asia.

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From Banaue we hiked about an hour to Batad, which is a gorgeous valley of rice terraces surrounded by steep mountains. The view from our hotel deck “blew my socks off,” as Papa D. would say…

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We spent the next few days exploring Batad. When I say exploring, I mean getting lost from the trails and teetering our way along the narrow pathways between the terraces. Andrew was a trooper with his recently broken femur. He hobbled behind us with his cane “suga” and handled it like a champ.

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Highlights of Batad: hiking to a waterfall, getting $6 massages, (is it weird that we were all stripped naked in a room together? Andrew, don’t look…) enjoying the views, trying new food and meeting the most humble and hardworking people we’ve ever met.

After we’d had our fill of Batad, we took a Jeepni back to Banaue. Pat and I rode on the top, which got a little sketchy trying to hang on while the maniac driver sped around curvy corners.

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(I hope you appreciate this photo bomb as much as I do…)

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Turns out shoving 25 Asians in and on top of an old jeepni isn’t the greatest idea. When the tire popped, the Asians shot out of that thing like rocket ships. I truly don’t know how they got out of there so fast…

Our next stop was El Nido, which is a cute little beach town that has blown up with tourists in the past few years. To escape the crowds we rented a private boat to take us around the islands for a three-day, two-night trip. We quickly learned that camping in the Philippines is not for the faint of heart. It means hot, sandy and uncomfortable nights with man-eating rats scurrying around your tent and malaria-filled mosquitos swarming your head. But heck, we loved every second of it.

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Our crew consisted of three guys—Marc, Jonathan and Cheeto—who looked like they were 14 years old. Turns out those boys know how to throw a mean beach party. They took us to some of the best snorkeling spots I’ve ever seen…crystal blue water with incredible wild life and crazy rock formations to swim through.

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(We swam through that hole and popped up on the other side into a gorgeous, completely secluded lagoon that had amazing fish and underwater tunnels to swim through…)

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They cooked us FEASTS of fresh fish, fried pork, fruits and exotic vegetables—who woulda thought Cheeto would be such a good cook? At night we’d set up camp on a deserted island and watch the sun set below the horizon.

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It was an incredible few days, but by the end of day three, we were definitely ready for a shower and some pants. Wait what? ***Note to self: never wear a fanny pack with only a swimsuit bottom.

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From El Nido, we took another night bus to Puerto Princessa to catch a plane to Cebu. The night bus got to PP around 3 a.m.—the airport didn’t open until 5. Hello asphalt, you are a way comfy bed. Not. I actually fell asleep for awhile but was woken up by a stray dog licking my foot. I’d put some anti-itch cream on a mosquito bite and I guess it was a tempting snack for that mangy little pup.

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From Cebu we headed to a charming little town called Moal Boal. That’s were we found the 40 cent mango shakes that we got twice a day every day while we were there…

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While in Moal Boal we snorkeled, went canyoneering and swam with whale sharks. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring our camera for the canyoneering so I have no pics to prove it, but it was definitely a highlight for all of us. We got to jump off a 40-foot waterfall into a natural pool, which was a first for me.

Swimming with the whale sharks was both terrifying and exhilarating. Those things are HUGE. One little flap of their tail in your face and your mom would be planning your funeral. Just ask Beth…she had a one-on-one battle with one of them when it tried to eat her. 😉

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Looking back, the Philippines is a tippity-top contender for our favorite country in Southeast Asia. If you ever travel to Southeast Asia, you HAVE to put it on your must-visit list…

Thank you Philippines for your mango shakes, crazy bus rides and never ending adventures.

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Next stop? Malaysia. (Coming soon!)