Home Again

And…that’s that. After 8 countries, 255 days, and a myriad of experiences, we’re home. It’s definitely bittersweet, but such is life – you have to ride the roller coaster, with all it’s highs and lows, and take the good with the bad. We had had incredible adventures, but we were ready to come home.


Last dinner in Hanoi!

Our flight home was smooth: we flew EVA air through Taiwan, and even managed to get a lifer from the airport, a Eurasian magpie.  Grandma had arranged for a limo to pick us up (sweet!) and it was Easter weekend – lots of family, lots of food, lots of chocolate. We were jet lagged but happy. The weather could have been better – in fact, we were pretty much frozen for the first month back, as our bodies reacclimated to a Canadian spring – but the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. It was actually great to see birds that we had missed while we were away. Even cardinals, blue jays and chickadees were exciting, it was like getting reacquainted with old friends.

[Left to right: first day of school; Easter egg; befriending the chickadees]

The jet lag was bad; we all felt like we had been hit by a bus. But we found the best way to get over it is to throw yourself back into the rhythm of life, with regular work and school routines to exhaust you, allowing for sound sleep. The kids had no issues having missed school for 7 months, and reintegrated into the school system smoothly, but the transition from freedom to structure felt harsh. Kevin had a tough time accepting that he was pretty much coming out of retirement and going back to work, whereas I was lonely – hanging with family 24/7 to suddenly no longer having people around for company and  conversation was hard. We were all emotional for the first few weeks as we settled back into life, with some mild depression all around. We were dazed; Canada felt real, but the trip felt like it had been a dream.

But it was great to put on jeans and favourite hoodies again, to play with old toys, to sleep in our own beds. And to bake again! Oh, how I had missed biting into hot and freshly baked chocolate cookies, pumpkin muffins, and raspberry scones. And we definitely ate a lot of comfort food, with shepherd’s pie, perogies and sausage, and tostadas on the priority list. Needless to say, the lack of exercise and increase in eating had us all put on a few pounds (totally worth it though). Our bodies have had a tough time adjusting to the western diet, as we’re not able to deal with dairy and bread as well as we used to. It makes for a musical household 🙂

Many long-term travellers prefer the nomadic lifestyle, and eschew suburbia and office jobs and soccer practices and all that a Canadian life offers. We are not those people though: we absolutely love travel, and embrace other cultures, languages and foods. We love to explore old towns, big cities, museums and temples. We love to interact with people who live an entirely different existence than us. We also love to explore jungles and grasslands, beaches and oceans, mountains and valleys, and encountering wildlife that are so weird and wonderful that we couldn’t even dream of them. And yet…we are always happy to come home. We love the nature in our backyard – the maple leaves and trilliums, the warbler migration and raccoons staring at us in the night. Our neighbours on our street kept an eye on our house, our children were so excited to play with their cousins, and the teachers at the school who were so supportive of this journey were thrilled to hear adventure tales from our kids. It’s been awesome to catch up with family, friends, and neighbours. And I can’t imagine not having that in my life. Canada is home, and it always will be.

But now, the wanderlust has set in. And while we’ll never do a 9-month voyage around the world again, we have set our sights on the next adventure awaiting us. Even if it’s only for a couple weeks, and even if it’s not for a few years, the dream is what keeps us motivated. The world is a big playground, and there are so many more places to visit and adventures to experience in the short time we’ve been given on this extraordinary planet.

Thanks for joining us on our journey. We hope you enjoyed the ride as much as we did!


On our way home!



We are still tallying up our expenses, and will post what the final total is, and whether or not we managed to stick to our budget. I can’t wait to see the breakdown of our expenses per country, and per category – the Excel geek in me has been looking forward to this the whole trip! And Kevin will write a summary post to let you know how the birding fared. There were some amazing highlights, some unexpected difficulties, and some incredible surprises, too. If you’re hoping to bird in some of these places, we can for sure give you our two cents on what worked and what didn’t. We also have lots of video to edit, and we’ll make sure to share our montages with you. And we plan on identifying how the gear held up, in case you’re looking for recommendations. So stay tuned; we’ll continue to write posts as we decompress and debrief over the next while.



Vietnam in Three Parts: 3 – The North

It had come, at last: the last 10 days of our trip. Our final hurrah to Asia, to being free, to adventure. While our hearts were heavy, we were also starting to move on, mentally – we had registered for soccer back home, spoken with our renter about move-out timing, and made Easter plans with the family back in Canada. It’s hard to be grounded and present when you’re faced with reality, but we tried to ensure we soaked in as much as possible while we could.

We arrived by night train at 5 am into Hanoi, after a restless but exciting night rolling over 500 km through the Vietnamese countryside from the centre to the capital city in the north. After a streetside coffee in the dark with other early morning risers, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel. In between naps we spent a day of gentle explorations of the west end of Ho Tay lake; a residential neighbourhood with coffee shops, schools, butchers and barbers, and the ubiquitous flower vendors on their bikes.


Arriving in Ha Noi


School drop-off Chaos

The next morning we ventured to Tam Dao, a hilltop station 80 km to the north. The steep switchbacks were starting to get us car sick by the time we arrived at the village on the mountaintop, nestled in the fog. It’s a very small town, with hotels piled haphazardly on top of one another, some old and empty, with odd castle-like monstrosities in a state of half-build.




There’s a small market on the main street, where they sell the specialities of the area: piles of freshly harvested su su, a tasty green leafy vegetable, and tables of poached meat from the surrounding forests, including porcupines and squirrels. It was hard to visit restaurants for the 3 nights we were here, as menus included a shocking array of wildlife: deer, turtle, pheasants, trogons, you name it. Needless to say, we ate vegetarian noodle dishes for dinner, and the safe (and delicious) bun cha from a local street vendor for lunch. Breakfast was a steaming bowl of Pho, which was a mental roadblock, but delicious and filling. While we saw and heard some formidable karaoke in town, we decided not to join in *ahem*. Walking the short circle road around the main square allowed us to be entertained by the antics of the numerous wedding and engagement photo shoots, various cock fights, as well as be included in selfies with Vietnamese tourists.

[Clockwise from Left: Local vendors selling their produce, cocks ready for their next fight, Pho for breakfast, the town square where we were asked for selfies, a bowl of Bun Cha, porcupine and squirrel meat, Com Lam: coconut and sticky rice stuffed bamboo]

This stop was very much centered on a final big birding push. There were some good birds to be seen here, and we were ready to go hard for a few days. Scouting our route on the first afternoon, we walked over to the government-manned gate at the start of the road winding through the national park. We were surprised by a sign blocking access, and confronted by unfriendly guards who presented us with a firm NO, for reasons unbeknownst to us. We returned with our friendly english-speaking hotel manager, hoping that with a translation and explanation of our case, we could convince the guards to let us pass. Alas, we had no luck, and were turned away. We were more then disappointed; we were angry. But arguing with a government official isn’t always the best path to take, so we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and came up with a plan B – hiking the 1000 steps up to the radio tower on an adjacent hill. The habitat wasn’t as pristine, and the path was busier than we would have liked, but considering our options, at least we managed to do a bit of birding. We did see some incredible species – Short-tailed Parrotbill, Black-chinned Yuhinia, David’s Fulvetta, Red-billed Blue Magpie, and a few endangered Laughingthrushes (which I won’t name, to protect them from further persecution). We even encountered a couple of bird tour groups who mentioned how they had to bribe the guards to get into the park, and who were flitting in and out of town, missing out on the eccentric personality of this little mountain village. There are many ways to travel, and our way might not get us all that we want, but we definitely manage to see a slice of culture that is authentic, and we are grateful for that.


Where we hoped to bird, but weren’t allowed in


Where we ended up birding, with some success

Once more, considering how difficult the circumstances were in Tam Dao, the kids were troopers – patient while we pursued sounds in the underbrush, and open to changes in plans, as well as new foods and experiences. We are so proud of them, and we’d happily jump into more adventures with them, anyday.

After Tam Dao, we went back to Hanoi to get ready for the next few days of travel. We decided to switch things up a bit, and treat ourselves with a tour into Bai Tu Long Bay on a Junk boat! We booked through Indochina Junk, and chose a smaller boat with only 20 passengers, for 3 days and 2 nights. We had seen pictures of Ha Long Bay, and while it looked beautiful, we weren’t impressed by the unsustainable numbers of daily tourists. Our tour meant quieter bays with less boats, with (hopefully) less of an environmental impact. It was more luxurious than anything we had done over the last 9 months, but it was a welcome relief to not do any planning for the next few days, with excellent food and service, and lovely views and fun activities. There were wonderful guests to chat with, and friendly and helpful staff. The tour included a water puppet show, a cooking class, a visit to a floating village and a pearl factory, a cave visit, some squid fishing, and a couple of kayaking excursions through the bay, one of which ended with a large and sumptuous seafood lunch on a private beach. We had wonderful weather, and the location was spectacular – hundreds of karst mountains jutting out of calm green waters; if it all sounds magical, that’s because it truly was.






After our tour, we landed in Hanoi with only three nights left on our trip. We filled them the best way possible: by wandering the streets of this vibrant city. We ate fabulous bun cha and drank mango smoothies, bought beautiful local handmade pottery and fabric, visited the incredible Women’s Museum, had heartfelt interactions with locals, crossed the streets and didn’t die, watched men play board games and women giggle while chopping pineapples.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses: at this point we were tired of noodles and rice, our lungs were feeling the effects of the ever-present smog, and our nights were being interrupted by honking horns and barking dogs. Speaking of dogs, this was the first time we actually saw cooked dog meat for sale on the street; it’s a sight that was sad and sobering, and will be hard to forget. We were also saddened by all the caged songbirds hanging in storefronts, but were grateful for the ones we had seen in the wild.


Vietnam is a huge country that is economically strong, with a powerful past and an exciting future. We have walked UNESCO villages, seen natural caves that were jaw-dropping, witnessed traditional fishing and rice farming, hiked through jungles and sailed through bays. After a month in this great land, we fell in love with it all, and want to see so much more – the Sapa terraces, the birds in Dalat, the coast at Nha Trang, the old city of Hue, the bioluminescence in Ha Long Bay…the list goes on and on. Our desire to see the world is not at all appeased by travel – in fact, with every step on foreign soil, with every sampled strange food, with every new bird, with every wonderful connection with another culture, our wanderlust grows. It’s a beautiful world; we can’t wait to see more of it.


Vietnam in Three Parts: 2 – The Centre

Since the planning stages of this trip, Hoi An was high on the list of places we wanted to visit. It’s an insanely photogenic town: a UNESCO world heritage site, with cobblestone roads and narrow alleys, surrounded by rice fields, near the ocean, with magical lanterns lighting up the nights. It has an interesting history as a trade port, with a blend of Vietnamese, French, Japanese and Chinese influences. The village is stunning; it’s a great town to wander and revel in history, art, and architecture.


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We had hoped to spend a few days in Hoi An itself, a day of birding in nearby Bach Ma Park, and some time on the nearby beaches. Our fabulous homestay was outside of town, but the free bikes available made it easy to get to town. Well, maybe not easy – have I mentioned yet the insanity of the roads, with their apparent lack of rules? We survived, but man, there were some close calls, especially coming back in the dark. It’s all part of the adventure though, right? Staying outside of town allowed us to decompress a bit after the business of the last 10 days, plus, there’s always the potential for some birds. There was a Green Bee-eater flycatching over the rice fields, a Plaintive Cuckoo singing his song every morning, Brown and Long-tailed Shrikes hunting for insects, and a Black Drongo doing his aerial tricks. Hoi An itself provided a new bird for the list too: Oriental Greenfinch, hanging with the Flowerpeckers in flowering trees in town.

In Hoi An, you can buy a ticket to the old city for a few dollars (120 000 VND) which gives you access to 5 free attractions. There are old Chinese shophouses and assembly halls, a few different museums, and a free arts performance with singing, dancing, and music. These attractions were amazing, and definitely shouldn’t be missed- they really helped us appreciate the history and beauty of the town and culture. There are many many MANY shops selling souvenirs, plus lots of shops with leather-made goods, and oodles of tailors willing to provide 24-hr custom clothing for cheap. We were holding off on buying souvenirs still, as our suitcases didn’t have a lot of room to spare. And while we contemplated the custom clothing, after a bit of research we found out the reason it’s so cheap and fast is because many use sweatshops – I’m sure the higher end stores have their own seamstresses, but we opted to avoid the issue in case we unknowingly contributed to the problem. Instead, we opted to wander and eat, feasting with our eyes and our mouths.




One thing we weren’t prepared for was the slew of tourists present. We can’t turn our noses up at the other visitors enjoying the sights, since we are included in such company, but it didn’t mean we had to embrace it. We ended up chillaxing in our homestay more than expected, but that’s ok – there have been few moments of doing nothing on this trip, and they were welcome. Other travellers said they got up early to walk through town, and it was quiet and lovely – in case we ever go back, that is definitely a strategy we will try.

Our hopes of visiting Bach Ma were dashed when we found out it was over 3 hours away: to be there at dawn would have been impossible. This is definitely a problem with pre-booking the itinerary for the month, since we couldn’t alter our plans to stay somewhere closer. It was hugely disappointing as that was definitely where we hoped to pick up a lot of birds, but there wasn’t much to be done about it.

Instead we spent a day on a snorkeling trip to Cham Island, just off the coast. It was a bit of a bust: we had to wait 1.5 hrs to leave the dock until our boat was full; the ocean was 19 C and we could barely breathe from the cold; another passenger sliced his leg open on the propellor, so the boat had to detour to a hospital; the tour of the fishing village was lame, and seeing all the sea life harvested out of the ocean from this marine preserve was heartbreaking; and there was no reef to speak of, much less fish (other than a gorgeous crown of thorns sea star). The seafood buffet on the beach was tasty though, so there’s that? Oh well. It wasn’t horrible, just not exceptional. The good thing about 8.5 months of travel is that if 1 day isn’t as unsuccessful, there’s a heck of a lot more good days to make up for it.

I had heard about the prospect of bioluminescence in the oceans around Hoi An, so we headed out late one afternoon to the beach in the hopes of seeing some after the sunset, but unfortunately there wasn’t any. We did get to watch the local fishermen in their woven round  basket boats paddling and surfing the waves, which was super cool.


From Hoi An we took a train to Dong Hoi, to visit Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. This place was incredible:  karst mountains, millions of years old, hiding massive caves – in fact, the largest caves in the world. The town is quaint, filled with kids taking their bikes to school, water buffalo lolling on the river side, and women harvesting aquatic plants from their boats.

From the boat dock, we booked a longtail with another Canadian family we had met along the way, and headed upriver to visit one of the most accessible caves, Phong Nha. The engine got cut as we entered the cave, and we glided in under the formidable formations, the only sound the slap and rhythm of the boat driver’s paddle in the water. Those paddlers must have abs of steel – what they’re doing is definitely a full body workout. We then left the boat to wander about the lit-up stalactites and stalagmites in the caverns – truly awesome. We visited a second incredible cave up the mountain, Tien Son. Not many people venture up the long staircase, which meant we were almost alone here, walking the boardwalks deep underground, admiring the textures and shapes made by eons of dripping water. Definitely gives one a sense of perspective, of both time and scale.

We found a few creatures around here, too: frogs, skinks, spiders, and glow worms!

We borrowed free bikes from the homestay to cycle the 10 km to the botanic gardens, along a scenic back road beside fog-covered mountains, sharing the road with cows (while dodging their patties). Single gear bikes made it hard to tackle some of the hills, but getting off and pushing the bike up allowed us to slow down and take in the beauty of the area, and even do a bit of birding – we saw a Chinese blackbird and Ratchet-tailed Treepie en route, while keeping our eyes open for the elusive Brown Hornbill.


At the gardens, we hiked the trails and managed to see some Scaly-breasted partridges, a Radde’s Warbler, a huge black and white squirrel, and a massive iguana/lizard thing. Inside and outside the boys bathroom was also a great spot for bugs: we found caterpillars, a thorn spider, Sphinx moth, butterflies, a stick insect, and Dobsonflies. The brakes on the bikes couldn’t be trusted on the downhills back, but otherwise it was another pleasant return bike ride to the village after a great day in the forest.

Our accommodation for our 2 nights in town was a homestay along the river with a sweet family, where our boys played with their 3 children, and we cooked and ate a delicious traditional Vietnamese dinner with them (with samples of rice alcohol, aka “Happy Water”), and listened to sobering stories of growing up during and after the war. As a child, our host had lost friends to explosions, and he himself had scars from napalm bomb shrapnel. He told us about all the millions of tons of unexploded ordinances still buried in the area, and took us for a drive along the Ho Cho Minh Trail in his 1967 US Army Jeep, pointing out the bomb craters amidst the rice paddies. It was a very intimate and very real history lesson which we won’t easily forget, in a beautiful part of Vietnam with a difficult history.


We would have loved to stay longer, but the train schedule meant we had to cut our visit short. A night train to Hanoi would bring us to the last phase of our trip, Northern Vietnam. Our voyage was nearing it’s end, but there were a few remaining adventures to be had.



Basic words in different languages

In every country there is a different language and it is always hard to understand the basic words, like hello, and thank you. It always takes about a couple days to learn it.

I have learned a lot of the basic words in a couple different languages, but it took a long time. Here are some of the words I have learned on this trip:

Hello in Malay is simply ‘hello’ but, thank you is ‘terima kasih’.

In Indonesian hello is ‘helo’ (it’s a little bit different, but not much) and thank you is ‘terima kasih’, again.

In Australia and New Zealand, it’s the same as ours.

In Thailand hello is ‘sawasdee ka’ for female (and ‘sawasdee krub’ for male), and thank you is ‘khob khun kha’ for female (and ‘khob khun krab’ for male).

In Cambodia hello is ‘chom seab suor’ and thank you is ‘arkoun’.

In Vietnam hello is ‘xin chào’ while thank you is ‘cam on’.

People love it if you speak in their language, because they feel like your trying to understand their own language.

Hopefully that will come in useful.



Vietnam in Three Parts: 1 – The South

I can’t believe we are down to our last country, and our last month on the trip. Where has the time gone? We planned a whole month in Vietnam (the longest time our visa would allow) before heading home, and filled it with many adventures – cities and villages, forests and oceans, caves and rice fields. And hopefully, a few more birds to add to our list.

While sick in Phnom Penh, we decided to book as much of Vietnam as possible. We were tired of worrying where to go next, and then not having good hotel options or train schedules. I can’t tell you what a difference it has made – we actually have down time! We have cars waiting for us when we get off a plane, and we know how many days we have in one spot. Of course, while it takes away the stress, it also takes away the spontaneity, but we’re at the point where our sanity is paramount, so we’re happy with a non-flexible schedule.

We took a 6-hr Giant Ibis bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh city, which was comfortable, smooth, and efficient. Another passenger on our bus didn’t get his visa beforehand, and was turned back at the border – not a smart move on his part, but it made us smug in our preparedness.

Ho Chi Minh city was an assault on our senses, but in the best way possible. Honking horns, steam from street food wafting by, navigating around motorbikes parked on the sidewalk, carts full of fruits and veggies being lugged down the street, narrow alleyways full of life.


Our homestay was in one such alley just off the backpacker street, in District 1, and was at a perfect location – within walking distance to the Cathedral and Post Office, Palace and park space, street food street and bustling market. Our hosts spoke English, and were super-duper helpful, giving us a map, tips on where to eat, to buy shampoo, and get our shoes fixed. What a difference it makes when your hotel is warm and engaged! We had 4 nights in town, which was the perfect amount, and we wandered the streets and got to experience the city well. By day we visited the sights, did a little bit of shopping (after haggling hard), and got lost in little alleyways. We learned how to play foot badminton, met some local kids, ate lots of Pho and Bun Cha, played in new playgrounds, and visited the local markets.

By night we checked out the night market, ate Bot Chien on stools on the roadside (with rats running between our feet), wandered by a fashion show, a traditional performance with song, and a free stage production of fairy tales for children (which ended with the chicken dance in Vietnamese).

We tried not to die crossing the streets, with it’s constant onslaught of motorbikes, buses, and cars, and figured out a trick – just start walking, and keep walking, at a steady pace – the vehicles will respond accordingly, and will avoid you – it’s terrifying but it works. We didn’t do any organized tours, or visit any museums – our kids are more into natural history than history, and that’s ok with us. Saigon has an energy that’s palpable, and we really loved it here.

Our next southern stop was a quick one to Can Tho, in the heart of the Mekong Delta. It was a 3 hr bus ride away, on a sleeper bus with permanently reclined seats. The kids loved it, but they’re not 6-ft tall, like *ahem* some people. Upgrading the transportation has been brilliant, and at this stage of the game we don’t regret spending a little extra money for a little extra comfort.


Upon arrival we booked a tour for 5 am the next day on a sampan (a little wooden longtail boat), to visit the famed floating market, watch traditional trade on the river, and sample various food offerings. It was neat to leave in the dark heading upriver, with the stars overhead, and bats twittering away. Then as the sun rose, we bought our coffee while on a boat from another floating boat, and watched buyers and sellers move produce back and forth. Most of the traders live on their boats, and you could see their laundry hanging out to dry, while they did their dishes on deck, and rested in a hammock after the melee was over. What a great experience.

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We headed to another, smaller floating market where we bought and ate fresh fruit, then went on a rice noodle factory tour followed by an orchard tour. The noodle factory was  amazing – they make a rice liquid, then cook it in sheets – using rice husks to fuel the fire – then dry it in the sun on bamboo mats for 5 hours, after which they run it through a cutting machine producing the noodles. The process is still done in a traditional way, which is so humbling, as we realize the effort that goes into producing our food.

We were given lots of information by our tour guide, and our sampan driver wove us gifts from palm leaves as she steered the boat with her feet.


The only negative on the tour was seeing how our boat driver had to stop the motor every 15 minutes to unclog the plastic bags that had tangled themselves in the propeller. The Mekong River is definitely seeing the full force of the continent’s addiction to plastic, and it’s sad to see. As well, the floating market is slowly disappearing, with fewer boats on the river every year as bridges, roads and trucks take over the distribution of goods. I’m happy to have seen this traditional way of life before it’s gone.

Our next stop was for an intense birding marathon in Cat Tien National Park. We had 3 nights here, which meant 2 full days and a couple half days to see what we could see. The park did not disappoint. Our days included a 2-hr evening boat tour, a 10-km return hike through the jungle (in 41 C heat!), and a 10-km return bike ride on rough roads.


We even managed to charm our way into a few blinds, sitting beside bird photographers with their 600mm lenses who had paid a premium to be there, while we giggled silently at the prospect of seeing rare birds, not caring about capturing them on film.

[Bored kids in a blind; they did great, considering how long they had to sit still and be silent.]

All of this hard work paid off big time: we saw oodles of wildlife. We managed to see 97 species of birds, including Siamese Fireback, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Bar-bellied Pitta, Blue-rumped Pitta, Greater-Eared Nightjar, Brown-backed Needletail, White-crowned Piculet, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Puff-throated Babbler, Pied Kingfisher, Banded Kingfisher, and so many more. (You can find Kevin’s full checklists on ebird).



We also saw lots of other biota, such as Mouse Deer, Sambar deer, Long-tailed Macaque, Golden-cheeked Gibbon, Siamese crocodiles, Wild boar, frogs, caterpillars, butterflies, bats, spiders and more. It was so awesome to be back in true wilderness, not knowing what would see around the next bend. We love exploring, and this highly successful stop was the epitome of jungle adventure for us.

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To see all that we saw in Cat Tien meant early mornings, lots of walking, and long, hot, hard days. We were pooped by the end, and anxious for some down time – maybe even a sleep-in? – which was coming up next in Central Vietnam, for the next segment of our trip here: Hoi An and Phong Nha.




The Highs and Lows of Cambodia

It doesn’t always go perfectly, no matter how hard you plan. Sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s an illness, sometimes it’s just life. There’s usually nothing that can be done but to just roll with it, looking for glimpses of light to keep you going.

It all started great – flying into Cambodia on AirAsia was the way to go. It was super easy to get the visa on arrival at the airport, and we had a tuk tuk waiting to take us to our hotel. We had connecting rooms – space and privacy, win-win! – and were not in the crazy part of Siem Reap, but were within walking distance to a strip of casual and cheap restaurants serving local food – another win-win.

But then things took a turn…we blame the fresh sugar cane juice gifted to us by our tuk tuk driver. Some of us started having tummy troubles, which is not ideal when embarking upon early, long hot days exploring Angkor Wat. Through resilience and determination, we didn’t let that stop us, but it made for exhausting days, as we pushed through the illness.

To make things worse, it was the onset of Lunar New Year, or Tet. This meant that there were busloads and busloads of tourists, mostly from China, who were spending their vacation the same way we were. Everything was busier – the streets had traffic jams, the restaurants were full, and Angkor Wat had lineups to get through the ruins.


So many people!

Still, we did get to see the awe-inspiring temples in the jungles of Cambodia, and they were truly incredible. It was hotter than Hades out, and we didn’t go for sunrise or sunset, opting for sleep to help get over the sickness. There were some birds to be seen as well, including 2 new species of raucous parakeets (Alexandrine and Red-breasted). We spent one day on the “small circuit”, taking in the classic popular temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, Bayon, and some smaller ruins. We were impressed by all of it – stunning with it’s scale artistry, and presence. Of course, it was harder to appreciate it when dodging selfie sticks, and while feeling claustrophobic caught in a tunnel with a few hundred other humans (praying there wouldn’t be any immediate earthquakes), but we persevered.

The next day we went further afield, visiting Banteay Srei, the pink sandstone temple with incredibly intricate carvings. We then proceeded another 10 km up the road (40 mins in the slowest tuk tuk ever) to bird Kbal Spean, where we saw White-crested Laughingthrushes, and the boys had monks ask for selfies with them – go figure. We got here late, and wished we had more time exploring the forest.  But the sun was setting and we still had a 2-hr tuk tuk back, mostly in the dark. While we only had 2 days of checking out Angkor Wat, considering our health, the heat, and the crowds, we were content with what we accomplished.

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We had heard about a local social enterprise in town called Phare Circus, where kids are given an education and training in the arts to help keep them off the streets, and then they participate in creating and performing a show. They tell meaningful Cambodian stories through music, dance, comedy and acrobatics. Ours was set in the modern urban jungle of Cambodia’s bars, and talked about the dangers of making ends meet, and trying to find romance. What a wild ride! We were oohing and aahing, amazed by the tricks, while also impressed by the humour and emotion. Really well done, and something totally different for us – a fantastic night out!

Siem Reap also has a workshop called the Artisans d’Angkor, which was an open studio where you could watch artists at work, painting and sculpting traditional products. It was neat to interact with the artists, and to see the process involved, as they transformed wood and stone and silk into detailed artworks.

We managed to meet up with a couple other travelling families we had met through a Facebook group, and had a great day of adult conversation while the kids got to interact with other kids – both of these have been rare over the course of our trip. We played in a park, went to a museum, and headed out for dinner together. It’s awesome to meet others who put an emphasis on travel like we do, and to bond over similar experiences.

It was time to leave Siem Reap by bus, and spend the next few days in Phnom Penh. Originally we had booked 3 nights in the city, which would have been enough to get our Vietnam visas and be on our way. However, Tet derailed our plans, again, as the Vietnam Embassy was closed for the weeklong holiday, so we extended our stay for 2 more nights until the embassy reopened. Our illness got worse, and we barely managed to leave the room to get food, and to drop off our passports at a travel agency who took care of the visa process. Being sick was bad enough; being sick in the gritty, loud city of Phnom Penh made it worse; but being sick in an unfriendly hotel, in a moldy, stained room, with the permeating odor of sewage, was awful. We were too weak to move elsewhere, so we endured; we were in a dark hole. It was an unfortunate low point in our trip, but these things happen. We are grateful for our emergency supply of antibiotics that we had brought with us from Canada, and for free wifi that kept us sane. But it was definitely rough.


Thankfully we were all better by the time we checked out, and we were happy to be on our way (in a private vehicle, just in case) to the near-coastal town of Kampot. We had a wonderful little hotel, with an amazing French-inspired breakfast (crepes anyone?), in the heart of the little town. Kampot has a vibrant ex-pat community, which meant little bistros and bars, coupled with a Cambodian culture: a nice blend for weary travellers. It’s a lovely spot along the river, with thousands of Germain’s swiftlets constantly chittering and circling overhead, and a nightly exodus of fishing boats headed to the ocean.



Here we managed to fit in a few activities that made our days magical:

  • a boat cruise downriver at sunset, where we stopped to watch the fireflies dance;
  • a fabulous cooking class at Khmer Roots Cafe where we learned to make coconut milk and curry paste from scratch, and then devoured the delicious dishes that we had proudly concocted;
  • an early morning trip up Bokor mountain with the Kampot Cruiser, where we had a great day of birding, watching termites marching, studying thorn spiders, and checking out viewpoints.

Great Hornbill


Wreathed Hornbill

  • A visit to the local night market for dinner meant we stumbled upon a mini amusement park, where the kids laughed their heads off and riding bumper cars and flying roosters.

We switched hotels for a couple of nights so we could be outside of town, and enjoyed the peace and solitude. We swam in the river, and kayaked at dusk down a loop through a green cathedral of palm trees. We saw a few birds – Mountain Hawk-Eagle, and Plain-backed sparrow – but mostly enjoyed reading in the hammock and doing homework on the porch.

There was also a bakery/restaurant that was owned by a Canadian that served (drumroll please)…Poutine! The kids were elated to have a taste of home. Here we bumped into another travelling family from Montreal, and we chatted and bonded and had a great night eating poutine together in Cambodia. The bakery was drool-worthy, and I’m not lying when I say that after living more than 40 years on this earth, we have discovered the best donut in existence: caramel banana cream. So fresh, not too sweet, a big pillowy pile of ambrosia; I doubt we will ever encounter it’s equal.


There were some major ups and downs to our 17 days in Cambodia – the lovely thing about memory is that over time the bad moments fade away, while the highlights become even more golden with each retelling.


Mes pensés sur notre voyage

Je veux te dire mes pensés sur notre voyage. Le voyage est très bon et amusement mais je suis fatigué et j’ai le mal du pays. J’aime le rythme quand on voyage: quelques jours dans un place et quelques jours dans un autre place. J’aime beaucoup les différents types de nourritures. Mon préféré nourriture était en Bangkok parce qu’il y a d’incroyable nourriture de rue partout. Il y avait des bols de soupe avec nouilles, et des smoothies à la mangue fraîche.

Je suis un peu fatigué de regarder les oiseaux parce que on fait ça beaucoooooooooooooooup. Aussi c’est difficile à parler aux autres personnes parce que ils parlent des autres langues et je ne peu pas les comprendres.

Je suis excité d’arriver à notre maison parce que je peux jouer avec tout mes jouets,surtout mon Lego, et parce que je peux voir mes amis encore.



Exploring Northern Thailand

There was so much appeal to heading to the North of Thailand: a better climate, a few mountain peaks begging to be birded, and two cities that are on many people’s favourite’s list, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. We landed in Chiang Mai, ready for a few days of wandering through the old walled city. The first couple of days we explored markets and temples, drank mango shakes (always!) and ate curries, rode in tuk tuks and walked for hours. We visited the famous Night Bazaar, but were underwhelmed – it’s much more touristy than we expected and we’ve had better, more authentic experiences elsewhere in Thailand.

(Left to Right: the Old City Wall, fresh mango smoothies, a Wat at night)


In a Tuk Tuk!

On our wanderings we toured numerous Wats, impressed as always by the peace and serenity held in these places of worship, and by the intricate details in the architecture. Sitting in the shade of a tree, watching multi-coloured ribbons dance in the breeze, and listening to the tinkle of bells was so soothing for the soul. A monk came up and chatted with us, hoping to practice his English. It was neat to hear about his studies, and his aspirations – he wants to become a chef in England! – and to be as in awe of him and his life as he was by us foreigners.

We also visited the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, a private collection amassed over a lifetime by two Thai entomologists, and a real labour of love. The information shared was fascinating, and the biodiversity included was absolutely incredible. For science geeks like us, it was a stop not to be missed.


A lucky coincidence meant that we were in town for the annual Flower Festival, where all the surrounding villages and hill tribes walked in a parade with traditional costumes, presenting flowers from their region. There were floats, marching bands, and beauty contestants, and it lasted for hours! Such colour and beauty, a lovely Saturday morning surprise spectacle.

Four days of city is enough for us before we need a nature fix; this time, we rented a car and headed southwest to a town called Chom Thong, near the base of the highest mountain in Thailand: Doi Inthanon. Our hotel was a short walk from a great little market, where we could grab tea and chocolate milk, banana waffles and sweet roti, and noodle soup with bok choi and pork. These markets where we interact with locals are the absolute best:  we see live eels for sale and fresh coconut being cleaved, we giggle with women and high-five kids, we try odd and interesting new foods, and we can really be immersed in the culture. Sometimes there are even hugs by an 80-yr old toothless woman who says that she loves me. The best!

The purpose of being here was to bird Doi Inthanon, which meant for a couple of days we had early mornings and long days, stopping at viewpoints, scanning the canopy, hiking in rainforest thick with moss, and listening for rustling in the understory. All of this hard work paid off, and we got some great birding rewards: 4 species of minivets, Maroon Oriole, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Hume’s Treecreeper, Black-backed Sibia, Green-tailed Sunbird, Plumbeous Redstart, and Silver-eared Laughingthrush (to name a few). Unfortunately, the kids are starting to lose interest in birding – after 7 months, I can understand why – which makes for shorter tempers all around. But when we all get glimpses of a Slaty-bellied Tesia, we all still get equally excited, so we plow on. And if we find a tiny stick insect, or eat weird rice crispy snacks, it helps us all get through the tough moments. One such tough moment was when Owen found a huge tick on his leg – like, 1 cm by 1 cm – but he was a trooper as Kevin managed to dislodge it, thankfully before it had started to feed.


Silver-eared Laughingthrush


Green-tailed Sunbird


Blue Whistlingthrush


Chestnut-tailed Minla

We dropped off our car rental at the Chiang Mai bus station (where Owen got his cheek squeezed by an elderly Thai woman) and we hopped on the public bus headed north to Fang. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride – they had 3 people sit on bench seats made for 2 – but thank goodness it wasn’t that long, only 3 hours. It was a bit chaotic when we arrived in Fang, as there are no taxis, Uber, tuk tuks or anything that will get the public around the city (seriously, Fang, get your act together!) so we were stranded wondering how to get to our hotel at the far end of town (5 km away). After much angst, we dragged our weary feet and worried heads into a nearby hotel, and the lovely lady at the front desk made some inquiries and got our hotel to send a car and driver. Lady, you rock! I could have kissed her.


In a bus!

The hotel was perfect – quiet, a cheap onsite restaurant with local food, and a friendly owner who arranged transport to get us around. It even had breakfast included; while chicken and rice soup isn’t quite what we expected, it was hearty and delicious. There were also rice paddies nearby that were fun to explore.


From here we had 2 excursions – the first was an early morning heading up Doi Ang Khang mountain to bird (of course). Some lovely lookouts and walks in the woods, and some lovely birds too: Mountain Bamboo-Partridge, Vivid Niltava, Japanese Tit, Gould’s Sunbird, Scarlet-faced Liocichla,  a bunch of Old World warblers, and a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch.


In a truck!


We stopped at the border to Myanmar and gazed from the army base over the barbed fence, grateful that there were no current hostilities. Here some local hill tribes in traditional clothes were selling their wares, and we also stopped and had some delicious lunch by a friendly lady who I would have loved to get to know better.



Yummy soup served with a great smile

The next day we rode in a songthaew to Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park where we got to enjoy the geyser and hot springs. We weren’t brave enough to sit in the saunas spewing their hot sulphuric gases, but a soak in the hot natural mineral baths after we wandered the roads birding (we heard, then saw, a Collared Owlet, but missed the White-capped Robin) was a neat experience.


In a songthaew!


In a hot spring!

From Fang, we got a ride by our hotel owner to the quiet town of Tha Ton, where we booked a trip on a longtail downriver to Chiang Rai. It was a great, cheap and relaxing way to travel, although maybe not super comfortable if you’re 6-ft tall. And you have to beware rogue waves! We greeted fishermen that we passed, watched water buffalo wallowing on the riverbanks, and waved to children bathing in the river. Highly recommended!



In a longtail!

We passed a village with many elephants ready and waiting to give rides to tourists, and shuddered; how awful. We had contemplated volunteering at an elephant rescue facility, but after much research, we couldn’t be sure that any facility was genuine, and not still exploiting elephants in order to gain tourist dollars. It’s possible that some good places exist, but without being sure of their intentions, we decided to avoid them entirely.

I bought some handicrafts from a local hill tribe woman; she’s not smiling here, but she cracked a smile after, and we hugged – it must be so hard bargaining with tourists day in and day out, but she had a twinkle in her eye once we settled on a price. Funny twist: she’s wearing a Starbucks t-shirt under her traditional clothing!

Chiang Rai was only a quick stop for a couple of nights – enough time to visit the night markets and see the famous White Temple. The night markets were amazing, a sensory overload, and we shopped and ate to our hearts content. There were Flower Festival festivities here as well, and we “enjoyed” some local dancing and singing talents.


Chiang Rai Flower Festival entertainment


A hill tribe woman weaving blankets on her loom

The Temple was a bit of an oddity, with beautiful architectural details in white and silver, including ornate dragons and buddha heads, but there were also skulls, bodiless hands, and a plethora of pop culture motifs painted on the walls of the main temple, including Yoda, Harry Potter, Aladdin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more. In the midst of all of this there were worshippers laying offerings at the foot of Buddha. We found a quiet hall where the was an exhibition of the architect’s artwork, and we enjoyed studying the various media and techniques he used in his paintings and sculptures, in an air-conditioned room away from the hordes (and I mean hordes) of tourists. Definitely an interesting, if a bit overwhelming, morning.


There wasn’t as much wildlife in the forests as we had hoped, but it could be that we were visiting at the busy time of year, and at the end of the dry season. And while we hadn’t planned on a hike through the hills to visit the tribal villages, if we come back that will for sure be on the agenda, it looks like a fantastic experience. The north of Thailand had everything we look for in a vacation; we loved it here.


In a … I don’t even know.



Beach vibes: Koh Phangan

After days of cities, markets, and temples, followed by birding, birding, and more birding, it was time to chillax at the beach. Plus, it was going to be a certain special person’s birthday so we decided to make it memorable.

There are oodles of beaches to choose from in Thailand, and we had a tough time picking which beach, on which island, on which ocean to spend our time. In the end we picked Haad Salad, on Koh Phangan, in the Gulf of Thailand. It was relatively easy to get to, not a party spot but not too sleepy, and had some decent snorkeling in a quiet bay.


It was a long journey to get there: first a 1-hr taxi to Hua Hin, where we spent the night, ready for an early bus departure to Chumphon in the morning. After an uneventful 4-hr bus ride with Lomprayah, we boarded a fast ferry towards Koh Phangan, stopping at Koh Tao en route.  A passing thunderstorm got us a little bit wet, but the 3-hr trip was smooth sailing otherwise. Then a 30-minute journey in the back of a Songthau (a truck taxi with bench seating in the back) to land us at our hotel’s doorstep. Man, were we ready to be here.


The Lomprayah ferry dock


Approaching storm

Our 6 nights here were just as we’d hoped: a lovely beach with snorkeling opportunities just offshore, a pool to cool off in during the heat of the afternoon, and a selection of casual Thai restaurants serving delicious food. The best part was that for a few days we didn’t have to do any planning whatsoever, we could sleep in, eat, and head to the beach – perfection. The kids loved the lazy days too, and bought some goggles to help explore the ocean floor.



We rented scooters for a day, and drove to a different beach for a change of scenery. A good friend had visited here a few years ago, and based on her advice we wandered to the end of the beach, through a restaurant to a concrete platform, to find a magical ledge from which we could leap into the ocean into waiting schools of fish. Too much fun! We loved it here, and were so grateful for the tip – thanks Audrey!

All this ocean jumping made us hungry, so we scootered to Mama Poo’s restaurant where we filled our bellies with yummy curries. Unfortunately, my bike skidded on some sand as we were pulling out – Owen and I got a bit scratched up, and so did our bike. The lovely Thai women around us jumped to our rescue with water, napkins, and a first aid kit. They were so sweet! We opted to continue on to the waterfall, which was a bit of a disappointment, and then  turned back before hitting the night market to assess our damages. The scooter rental company tried to squeeze us for 4200 Baht because of a couple tiny scratches on the bike, but after some intense negotiating we managed to cut that in half…so, $80 poorer and with bandages on our road rash, we whimpered home.



The next day was Callum’s birthday! A surprise pancake cake for breakfast prepared by the hotel staff was followed by a half day snorkeling trip around the island. For 3000 Baht ($120) we had a private boat, 3 stops, and lunch included. It was great, with parrotfish, pufferfish, and even nudibranchs! But the highlight was the last reef at Koh Ma, where we swam over brain coral with huge schools of fish, spiky sea urchins, anemone with clownfish, needlefish, butterflyfish, batfish, and more. Amazing!


We came back, had a swim in the pool, a Thai massage – the kids’ first, they loved it!’ – and a Massoman curry dinner with a mango shake. A great day to celebrate a great kid as he turned 11. Happy birthday, buddy!

Every evening we watched the sunset from the beach, hoping to see the atmospheric phenomenon of the green flash, as the sun dipped below the surface of the earth. But the conditions were never ideal, with cloud or haze blocking the horizon, so we’ll have to try again on another Western coast.


Six nights was enough for us to be well rested and well fed (fyi, our favourite restaurants were Sea Salad and Yin Ying’s Kitchen), before we got restless and bored. We opted to shortcut our travel onwards by taking a ferry to the mainland followed by a flight to Chiang Mai, where we would explore the north for our last 10 days in Thailand.


Thanks for a great week, Haad Salad!


A little birding excursion: Pak Thale and Kaeng Krachan National Park

After a few days battling the crowds in steamy Bangkok, it was time to flee the city and see some of the countryside. We decided to head a few hours southwest of Bangkok to the sleepier city of Phetchaburi, using the state train system as it was the easiest, most affordable means of getting there. The central train station in Bangkok was easy to find and quite well organized, but with only an hour before departure, the seating options on the train were pretty limited. So, it would seem, we ended up with seats in third class. To briefly describe the experience, think of a blend between a freight train and a yellow school bus. It was sweltering and it was also a bit of a milk-run, but we arrived safely (and only an hour behind schedule).


We decided on Phetchaburi as it was a convenient base for accessing the world-renowned shorebird site called Pak Thale, a huge series of salt pans located adjacent to the Gulf of Thailand. Not only does it attract huge numbers of shorebirds – often in excess of 40 species in a day – it is one of the most accessible sites in the world for seeing the extremely rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper. According to estimates, there may be as few as 400 individuals of this species remaining on the planet, with numbers declining steadily each year, primarily from habitat loss. If declining trends continue, the species will likely disappear in as little as a decade, so it seemed important that we all make an attempt to see it.

We didn’t have any expectations for our stay in Phetchaburi, and we settled on a small, inexpensive guesthouse for our 3-night stay. The guesthouse was a neat little family-run affair, with the family living onsite (including daily visits from both grandmas). They were the nicest, kindest people, and they helped us plan out the logistics and food options for our entire stay. They even arranged cheap motorbike rentals for us to get around, which worked out beautifully. They recommended we visit the local night market, which ended up being a goldmine for our “foodie” family, with an utterly amazing “muslim food” stand (various curries and a simple but fantastic saffron rice and chicken dish), as well as delectable fried oysters, pad thai, dessert, beer, and all at ridiculously low prices.


After a nice breakfast on our first morning, we headed out to the salt flats at Pak Thale. A bit of a winding, but easy, half hour ride out of the city took us to the shorebird reserve where we began our search. The salt pans are each about the size of a football field surrounded by a narrow perimiter dyke, filled with a few inches of highly saline water. The birds were a bit scattered, with somewhere in the vicinity of about 20,000 individuals of close to 35 species to sort through. There was no shade, no breeze, and the sun was wickedly hot. So, after about 1.5 hrs of unsuccessful searching, we needed to take a break for some cold drinks, shade, and a bite of lunch. Back at the main road, we managed to find a small food stand selling an assortment of Thai curries, along with rice and some cool drinks. After getting through much of the spicy food, often containing various unidentifiable meaty animal parts, we were ready to try our luck again.

While we were satiated and re-hydrated from our lunch, it was even hotter and dryer in the early afternoon than it had been in the morning. We scanned the pans looking for large aggregations of shorebirds and picked a few to try and get a bit closer to. After an hour of carefully combing through flocks of feeding shorebird, we were still coming up empty on spoonbills. The kids, despite being total troopers thus far, were beginning to lose interest and I was so hot that I may have begun to lose consciousness. I suggested we try one last group and hope for the best. So, we all sat down and started one last scan. After a few false alarms, Theresa noticed a bird that seemed to be foraging and moving much differently than many of the similar stints and other peeps in the area. We both got onto it and quickly confirmed it to be our target species, a genuine Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We all had decent looks and I managed one satisfactory photo. It was Hi-5’s all around and a brief pat on the back for a family’s perseverence (or stubbornness on behalf of their father).


We decided to keep the motorbikes for another day and spent our second day in Phetchaburi driving the outskirts of town to see some of the rice paddies, temples, and one of the King’s summer homes (a huge series of temples and buildings scattered on a mountain-top).


Temples = Monkeys

We visited a local food market and sampled some authentic Thai snacks and desserts before heading back to the night market for another evening of enjoying the various foods on offer. We also managed to try some delectable coconut ice cream, a hot coconut bubble porridge dessert, and an interesting local milkshake with palm syrup and long green jelly worms. Although we knew nothing about Phetchaburi before we arrived and had close to no expectation of it being a successful stop, we had a great time exploring the sites, food and culture of this interesting historical city.

Our next destination was Kaeng Krachen National Park, Thailand’s largest park, which borders the dense forests of its western neighbour, Myanmar. It also has one of the largest bird lists for any national park in Thailand, with a reasonably accessible road providing opportunities to visit a broad range of forests at various altitudes. Our base for our visit to the park was a nearby nature lodge called Baan Maka. It’s now owned by a Brit, who is a keen all-around naturalist and birder, and the grounds of the lodge offered some great birding and opportunities for exploring.


We woke early on our first day and hired a 4×4 truck and driver to take us into the park. Not long after passing the park gate, the road quickly became quite rough and steep and we were glad to have someone else doing the driving, though we spent the drive sitting on metal benches in the bed of the truck, bouncing and bopping on the rough road. Our first stop was the summit, where we birded in the cool morning air for several hours. We added some really great birds, including: Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Blyth’s Shrike Babbler, Great Hornbill, Great Barbet, and Red-headed Trogon.

(Clockwise from top left: Great Barbet, Black-crested Bulbul, Moustached Barbet)

We drove back down to the lower elevations for a late lunch and some lackluster birding around the park headquarters in the afternoon. While it’s possible to see Asian elephants in the park, we weren’t so lucky, but we did end up seeing 2 species of monkeys: Dusky Leaf monkey and White-handed Gibbon, which was singing overhead.

We were running a bit low on cash, so we asked our driver if he could find us an ATM machine before returning to our hotel. While there was an enormous language barrier, he seemed to understand and nodded approvingly. However, after driving for about 20 minutes, he proceeded to drive up to the gate of what turned out to be the training facility for the Thai Special Forces Military Tactical Unit. He spoke in Thai and must have mentioned that we were after an ATM, and they waved us through! So, we drove back and forth across the base without managing to find and ATM, but eventually we found one at the 7-11 in a nearby town.

For our second day, we decided to sleep in, take our time, and just spend the day walking around the extensive grounds at the lodge. We added several new bird species here, including: Forest Wagtail, Violet Cuckoo, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Hainan Blue Flycatcher,  Blue Whistling-Thrush, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, White-rumped Shama, and Oriental Pied Hornbill.


Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush


Oriental Pied Hornbill


White-rumped Shama

The lodge is also adjacent to a large lake, with several kayaks available to loan. We added Yellow Bittern, Eurasian Moorhen, Bronze-winged Jacana, and White-throated Kingfisher on the lake. We even found 2 different Olive-backed sunbird nests, hanging over the lake with the female hunkered down incubating the eggs.


Female Olive-backed Sunbird in her nest


There were also butterflies emerging from their cocoons, the second largest species of gecko in the world (the Tokay Gecko), a baby reticulated python, some large orb-weaver spiders, a massive foot-long centipede, and fireflies. After a few hours of birding the grounds on our third and final morning, we jumped in a pick-up truck and headed an hour southeast towards the coast. We were ready for a week or R’n’R in the islands (yes, we were in need of a holiday from our holiday).

(Clockwise from top left: Red-base Jezebels, unknown frog, Oriental garden lizard, Tokay’s Gecko)