Author Archives: Laura Jacobsen

The perfect beach: Paliton Beach on Siquijor

The Picture-Perfect Beaches of Siquijor

Imagine the perfect beach: white sand, blue sea, and palm trees leaning languidly over the shore. Believe it or not, after traveling for almost a year and staying in countless beach huts, we hadn’t found that perfect beach. Maybe that’s because we had been looking for great coral and sea life, which doesn’t always come with the prettiest beaches. The Philippines is known for its beautiful beaches, so our first goal was to find white sand, turquoise water, and palm trees leaning at the perfect angle. We found it all on the sleepy island of Siquijor in the Visayas.

Our Story: The Beaches of Siquijor

We were sitting in the rain in the Banda Islands, deciding what to do next. We were itching for sun and sand, and the weather forecast in the Philippines looked beautiful. We moved up the dates of our Philippines trip to take advantage of the great weather. But how to choose a beach? The Philippines has thousands of islands, all of which look amazing. The most famous beach destinations, like Boracay, are overrun with people. To make matters more complicated, we were going to arrive in the country at the tail end of Easter week, … Read more

Mrauk U sunset

Old-School Travel to Mrauk U

I often think that I was born a decade too late. As a child of the 1980s and a teenager of the late 1990s, I feel that I arrived just too late to appreciate what may have been the apogee of Western culture. Many of my favorite bands produced their best work well before I left for college and could have seen them on tour. The fashion of the 80s and early 90s gets a bad rap, but who didn’t love Claire Danes’ oversized flannel shirts and chunky boots in My So-Called Life? The revival of the X-Files, my favorite TV show of the 1990s, has made me nostalgic for a time when the worst thing that we could worry about was a government conspiracy of an alien invasion. I would prefer that to the all-to-real economic instability, threat of terrorism, and looming environmental collapse that have darkened the 21st century.

I also suspect that, in many ways, travel was more rewarding a few decades ago. Paul traveled extensively in Latin America and Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the advent of mass tourism in much of this area. He has amazing stories of his … Read more

Ora Beach Bungalows

Way off the beaten track: Pulau Seram

Our visit to Pulau Seram, a rugged island in Indonesia’s Maluku province, was inspired by a photo in an Indonesian airline magazine. The photo was of a row of stilt bungalows on a gorgeous turquoise bay backed by mighty green forested cliffs. The accompanying article was only in Indonesian, but we found the place name, Pantai Ora (Ora Beach) in the caption. A few days and some Google Image searching later, Ora Beach on Pulau Seram in Maluku province was on our bucket list. We were already thinking about a trip to Maluku to see the Banda Islands, and the chance to add a visit to Pulau Seram firmly placed Maluku on our itinerary.

We do a lot of internet research to help us choose destinations, hotels, and things to do. The most striking thing we learned when researching Pulau Seram travel is how little information there is! The available information in English consists of a couple of pages in the Lonely Planet, a thread on the Thorn Tree forum, and a few blog posts. We were a bit worried that Pulau Seram would be an anticlimax after our amazing visit to the Banda Islands, but we were keen … Read more

Butter lamps. Kathmandu

Kathmandu, the Timeless City

Kathmandu is a city that never changes. When we arrived in Nepal from Southeast Asia, it felt like we had traveled back in time. Our battered taxi from the airport bumped along rundown streets past tiny temples, women in red shawls, and the occasional cow. Hindu and Buddhist shrines peeped out between ramshackle shops and houses. It was dirty, chaotic, and colorful: in other words, just the way we remembered it from our long visit in 2007. We almost decided not to come to Nepal because of the earthquake and fuel crisis. But once we arrived in Kathmandu, we were absolutely thrilled to be back in our favorite city.

Sadly, the price of Nepal’s cultural integrity is poverty and political upheaval. In the last twenty years, Nepal has lurched from one political crisis to the next, interrupted by the occasional natural disaster. These problems keep Nepal high on the list of Asia’s poorest countries and make it feel like the 21st century hasn’t arrived yet.

We spent three days in Kathmandu before our Everest trek, and another six days afterwards. Before the trek, we stayed in Thamel, the backpackers’ hub in the city center, at the fine Pilgrim’s Guesthouse. After … Read more

Tam Coc River

Northern Vietnam: Lan Ha Bay, Tam Coc, and Sapa

With 15 days in Vietnam, the scope of our visit had to be limited. We stuck to northern Vietnam and didn’t deviate too far off the tourist trail in order to take in the highlights. We had two goals: to see lots of limestone karst, and to get a taste of hill tribe culture. Outside of Hanoi, we made three stops: Lan Ha Bay, Tam Coc, and Sa Pa and the surrounding villages.

Limestone karst formations are one of my favorite geological features. Limestone is porous and susceptible to erosion that leaves behind all kind of lumpy and bumpy formations. I have always thought that limestone karst landscapes have a special feeling. Maybe it’s because limestone is made of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, so it represents a joining of land and sea. Limestone hills can conceal caves with underground rivers and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. In the Yucatan, cenotes or sinkholes were believed to be passages to the underworld.

I had seen beautiful limestone karst caves and cliffs in southern France, Bosnia, and Mexico, but nothing like the spectacular karst scenery that stretches across Vietnam, Laos, and southern China. Seeing these landscapes was a priority on … Read more

Dong Xuan Market

A taste of Hanoi

Big cities haven’t been the highlight of our trip. With a growing middle class and globalization, a lot of Asian cities feel boringly similar to home in many ways. Local people shop in air-conditioned malls and drive shiny new cars. Pollution and traffic jams are rampant. The best experiences of our trip have typically been on remote beaches or mountain trails away from massive population centers.

But Hanoi has something special. With a population of 7 million and serious air pollution, it has its share of the problems that affect all the world’s major cities. But the Old Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods in the core of the city retain an unmistakable charm. It’s noisy, hectic, and pedestrians need to perform elaborate dances to avoid motorbike collisions. Sidewalks aren’t for walking: they’re where street food vendors set out tiny plastic stools for customers, fruit sellers thread between traffic with shoulder poles or bicycle baskets, and merchants hawk their goods in streets that are still designated by trade. Our friend and seasoned traveler Arik once compared the Old Quarter of Hanoi to Kathmandu as cities that have an absolutely unique and special atmosphere, and we agree.… Read more

Blue water at Bunaken

At the Edge of the Map in North Sulawesi

I first heard of Sulawesi at age 9 or 10 from the Tintin comic, Flight 714. Tintin and his friends are on a plane that crash lands on a tropical island, where the lush jungle and smoldering volcanoes conceal mysterious machinations by the island’s secretive residents. Hmm, could this have inspired Lost? Anyway, at one point the book mentioned that the island was located in the Celebes Sea. I didn’t know where this was, so I called out to my father in the next room, “Daddy, what’s the Celebes Sea?”

“Er, the celibacy is when a priest or nun makes a vow not to have sex.”

Confused, I showed my father the text of the comic strip.

Embarrassed laugh. “Oh, that’s a sea in Indonesia!”

I later learned that Celebes is the former colonial name of the starfish-shaped Indonesian island of Sulawesi. After several weeks hitting the tourist highlights of Java, Bali, and Lombok, we decided to head to this less-visited island reputed to have fantastic wildlife, jungle-cloaked archipelagos, and unique culture. Our route would take us from Manado on the northeastern tip all the way to Makassar on the southwest.… Read more

Planning Central Asia Overland Travel

Turkmenistan, the Land of Odd

“After Iran and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is going to seem normal.”
– me, after a day in Ashgabat

Let’s take a show of hands. Who can identify Turkmenistan on a map, describe any significant event in its history, or name its capital city? I’ll admit that before we started to plan this trip, I would have failed all of the above. Turkmenistan is unlikely to feature on many travelers’ bucket lists. It has no world-famous sights and its visa regime makes travel bureaucratic and expensive.

From what we could tell, visitors to Turkmenistan fall into one of two categories: overland travelers en route between countries, and aficionados of the weird and wacky. For Turkmenistan’s single most defining feature is its quirkiness. This is a country where the previous leader named the days of the week after his family members, it’s illegal to drive a dirty car in the capital, and the most famous sight is a flame-emitting gas crater.

We organized a four-day, three-night trip across Turkmenistan from the Iranian border at Bajgiran to the Uzbekistan border with Stantours. We spent two nights in the capital, Ashgabat, and camped in the desert near Darvaza Gas Crater on the third night. We … Read more