Monthly Archives: November 2012

Da Nang

Da Nang is a beach city.  The waves steadily roll to the coast and the lazy ambiance rolls along as well.  Our first night in Da Nang we went for a walk along the beach.  Locals smiled and waved, and were excited to practice their English by saying, “hello”.  The feel of the area was instantly different from the moment we set foot in the airport.  Even driving from the airport to the hotel, we noticed the change in cleanliness.  The streets were clean, and the restaurants set forth an appearance of good hygene. Eventually we decided that dinner was in order.  There was an enticing entry in our guidebook with mention of house brewed Czech style beer and local cuisine.  How could we resist?  So, we hopped in a cab and made our way to the Tulip Brewery and Restaurant.  The golden steins of cold, frothy beer were exactly what we desired after a long, hot beach walk.  We were, also, able to sample local cuisine.  We ordered plates like a seafood salad that you eat on shrimp rice crackers, a whole seasoned chicken that you dunk into a spice mixture with lime and green glutinous rice, and a seafood and mushroom dish with noodles.  All were fairly tasty, but went well with our giant mugs of beer, unless you are Sandra and I’d say giant mug of beer.  After our long day of travel, heat, dinner, and beer we called it a night, and took advantage of our satellite TV and cushy beds.

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Our next day, we began with a trip to the Marble Mountains, which holds caves and temples.  There are shrines set to the budda set within the mountain and the light that came through on our cloudy day proved to create an eerie light and a marvelous sight.  This cave was way more amazing than Amazing Cave on Halong Bay.  And there were barely any tourists to obscure the view, mainly locals with offerings.

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We, then, hopped in a car to spend the day in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An Old Town.  The streets that radiate out from the central market are filled with handicraft shops, boutiques, and cafes.  The architecture is inspired by the Chinese and Japanese who used to frequent this once bustling port town.  Now it booms with the assistance of a steady tourist crowd, but there is a healthy mix of locals to remind you that you are still in Vietnam.  It is a quaint little town that lit up in the evening.  Situated along a river, Hoi An made a perfect place to experience our first full moon festival of our trip.  Children and old women sold paper lanterns that you could lower into the water for a small price.  The evening was lit up by the large, bright moon, the colorful lanterns in storefronts, and the flames of lanterns illuminating the river way.  Outside shops you could find offerings of rice, fake money, fruit, alcohol, cigarrettes and anything else that may please the gods.  

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While in Hoi An we tried the local dish of Cao Lao, thick noodles of yellow color said to get their flavor from the ash and water from the local well.  Served with pork, veggies, and a bit of broth, these noodles are best when accompanied by some chili sauce.  It was a step up from some of the other Vietnamese food we’ve had. We were happy to have some new flavors, but are still not too impressed by the Vietnamese food.  There were, also, some wontons and crab, but the best food of the day occurred i the evening.  We were searching for bahn my only to find that it only means sandwich, and weren’t impressed with our options, when we came across a line of food stalls that looked intriguing.  A man approached us and explained to us as we walked that the food stalls were all the same.  A group of 35 families work together in this line of stalls.  They all have the same menu and take turns pulling in customers.  It sounded like a really neat idea, and fell into the category of what we’d expect from a socialist nation, so we pulled up a bench and dug in.  We all ordered what he had recommended.  We began with a seafood, tomato, mango, and onion salad atop a crispy, rice cracker (think ceviche or nachos).  For our main we ordered shrimp, lemongrass, and onion mixture, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, served with the spice and lime mixture and rice.  All washed down with some good local beer and it was the best meal we’d had, yet.  

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We had a successful day in Hoi An of local cuisine, shopping and even a festival.  Now we’re on our way to the modern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

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Good Morning Vietnam!

We woke up for our first full day in Hanoi with a knock on our neighbor’s door.  Sandra has come to travel with us, and it’s so exciting!  We started off our day with breakfast in our hotel, and some Vietnam planning, before we finally made our way out to see the town.

Our first stop was to Hoan Kiem Lake.  We walked around the lake before stopping at a lakeside cafe for some Vietnamese coffee.  Vietnamese coffee consists of a strong, dark coffee, with a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom.  You can walk down any street in Hanoi and find people absently stirring their coffee to integrate the thick, sugary syrup.  It’s delicious.  

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We continued around the lake before trying to find the French quarter of Hanoi.  We’re not exactly sure if we found it, but we found loads of streets filled with shops for tourists and locals alike.  One stop we made was to grab an avocado shake.  I’m not sure if it was avocado in my thick, green beverage, but it was tasty nonetheless.  

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Afterwards we found the Water Puppet Theatre.  It was an interesting show where the stage was a large pool of water, and the puppets emerge from the water and are controlled by puppeteers wading offstage.  The little puppets are accompanied by live traditional music and the whole show displayed traditional ceremonies and cultural traditions of the Vietnamese people.  It was actually really interesting.

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After the show, Sandra noticed that she had grown a wart during the duration of the show.  Apparently puppets cause warts.  In any case, we needed to find a pharmacy to remedy that.  We found a pharmacy and tried first in English, hand gestures, and by showing them the wart.  They had no idea what we wanted.  Our Lonely Planet phrasebook was useless (and seems to be in many situations).  We found the word for wart on google translate or something like that.  We pointed to her thumb and said ‘cam’ which is what it said was the word for wart.  We showed her the spelling, and she laughed.  She said, “This is pharmacy. Only sell medicine [laughs] not rice”.  Awesome.  We were asking for rice.  Fun times while trying to converse with locals.  We ended up having better luck at an herbalist who gave Sandra little pink stickers to cure her ailment, and it worked.  And she was left with a pretty pink dot.

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We made our way back to the hotel to freshen up, because we had a Thanksgiving dinner to attend.  Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday and we found a place to enjoy a, mostly, traditional turkey dinner at a fancy French restaurant in Hanoi.  

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The next day we checked out the Ho Chi Minh Memorial and the one pillar pagoda.  We were kind of conflicted when we were there, because we’re not exactly Ho fans.  But, then again,  we’re being supportive by just entering the country, so…  Maybe if the building were prettier, less concrete slab more ornate beauty, we may have felt better about it.  And we found out that the one pillar pagoda was a smaller replica of another pagoda.  Wah wah…

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Then we went to the Temple of Literature.  The Temple of Literature was the first university to open in Vietnam.  We happened to visit on graduation day, so there were groups of students dressed nicely, taking pictures.  There were lucky turtles to rub and shrines to pay homage, and of course, the compulsory souvenir shops.

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We were trying to find some Vietnamese food for lunch that, also, looked like it wouldn’t send us to the hospital.  The majority of places to eat in Hanoi are street stalls, where meals are sold, cleaned, cooked, and eaten either directly on or within inches from the street, and car and foot traffic.  Needless to say, the street food does not seem as safe in Hanoi as it was in Bangkok.  We found an actual restaurant with an indoor kitchen and ordered some food and drinks.  We didn’t get what we thought we ordered, and all came with the same sweet, vinegar dipping sauce.  It was all fairly bland.  

After more meandering, we decided that a movie night was in order.  The guide book boasted of a great cineplex in Hanoi, so we made our way there to see Skyfall, the new 007 flick.  I’m sure I drove Seth and Sandra crazy with all my noises of excitement and surprise.  It was like sensory overload for me, not having seen an action movie on a big screen for such a long time.  Just about everything amazed me.  Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to begin our Halong Bay adventure.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s stunning beauty of limestone karst formations that rise vertically up from the calm turquoise water.  The hazy weather we had during our overnight stay on the bay only accentuated the eerie quality of the area, with large formations materializing through the mist.  

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The tour company picked us up from our hotel and brought us the three hours to Halong City.  It was an extremely bumpy ride, and I think it was due more to the shocks of the minibus than the roads.  Our cabins onboard the ship were quite fancy for a boat, I thought.  The first order of business on the boat was lunch.  They served us a spread of bland, Vietnamese dishes.  I don’t think Vietnamese food is for us.  Soon thereafter, we hopped onto a smaller boat to take us to the floating city.  We boarded a little rowboat with a member of the floating city, and went for a trip around the neighborhood.  It was a pretty interesting place.  Even though they live in the middle of the bay, floating on the water, they still have some modern conveniences.  We saw that most had televisions and we know that their computers had internet because our phones began picking up their signal and emails were pinging.  All of these modern comforts are powered by generators.  The main source of income for these people are from fishing, which makes sense.  Whether they caught the fish and sold them or caught them and grew them to a larger size, fishing funds this village.  There was also a pearl farm that probably makes money through tourists and their website, as well.

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That evening we were served more mass quantities of bland Vietnamese food.  We even had a ‘cooking demonstration/class’ where we made spring rolls.  Not even those were good.  Maybe it’s not fair that we just came from Thailand where every bite of food is packed with flavor and spices, but the food seems to be lacking any kind of seasoning.  We’re still trying.

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The next morning we went to Amazing Cave.  It was quite large and had interesting limestone formations, and I was amazed at how many tourists they packed into it.  If we had been there with way less people it may have been the type of amazing they were advertising.

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We went back to the boat for lunch.  What?  Breakfast at 8 and lunch at 10:45, too much.  The bay was beautiful with limestone formations jutting from the ocean, but the cruise seemed to highlight meals.  After we filled out our comment cards the trip seemed to be quite rushed to get us off the boat.  We were served an equally unexciting meal and rushed off the boat, only to wait in a parking lot for about 45 minutes, sitting on a curb, for our shuttle bus to take us back to Hanoi.  The bus ride home was equally as bumpy as our ride to the bay, but we made it back in one piece.  

We were not convinced that all Vietnamese food was bad, so Sandra found a recommended place online.  We all ordered a vermicelli rice noodle, greens, and pork dish and were able to add some chili vinegar and spice to help it out a bit.  It was okay.  No real wow factor though.  Dessert was a bit more interesting.  Sandra chose one with fried grapes and tapioca balls (or something like that) and I ordered a coconut cream with purple sweet potato.  Both were pretty good, and definitely were interesting.  Not a bad meal, but hoping for better.  This morning we are flying out of Hanoi and into Da Nang where we can hopefully find some better cuisine!

Moving On…

Seth gave me quite a scare.  A hospital in Thailand is not ideal.  But, they were good enough and after some tough days, he seems to be on the mend, though his culinary experimentation phase has come to a screeching halt (understandably).  

Getting to Vietnam was a two step ordeal.  Due to flight times, we would have to fly from Phuket to Bangkok, and the next day fly from Bangkok to Hanoi.  We had a bag of unused items and souvenirs that we wanted to stash somewhere in Bangkok.  So, once our flight landed, we hopped in a taxi (a metered taxi from the airport) and sped off to a storage facility in the center of Bangkok.  After some confusing back and forth with the driver, who knew about as much English as we know Thai, we got him to agree to wait a minute while Seth dropped off the bag, before heading to our hotel, which was right across from the airport.  I’m not sure what he thought about the whole ordeal, but he seemed to think it was funny.  

What I thought was funny was driving up to our hotel.  Our hotel was disguised as a car wash, and I think it was an undercover no tell motel.  I wish we took pictures, because it was such a funny place.  It was mostly clean, and the bed happened to be one of the most comfortable we’ve had in a while.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but Thailand seems to be notorious for very hard/firm mattresses.  This, mostly clean, bed was much softer.  

We asked the woman at the front desk if there was a shopping mall nearby.  She asked us if IT Shopping Mall was ok, and we said, “sure!”  There have been so many acronyms on our trip and shopping malls tend to be referred to by their acronym.  Who knew that this time the acronym would be so literal in English.  The mall was full of IT gadgets.  It was a mall of adapters, monitors, speakers, phones, and anything else you and your electronics collection may need.  And our dinner options were minimal.  But, we ended up going to a chinese restaurant that had been recommended to us in the past named MK (note the acronym).  It was pretty delicious.  We ordered a mix of noodles and dim sum like foods.  

We woke up at 4:30am to catch our flight to Hanoi.  Unfortunately, when you hail a taxi at odd hours, and not odd hours, there’s a high chance that your taxi driver will be drunk.  We noticed this very quickly.  Even though the ride was only about 10 minutes, we almost got out and walked, because he was bad news.  But, we made it to the airport and from there it was pretty straightforward; long lines, airport employees who don’t make sense, seats with no legroom, and smelly people sitting next to you.

At the airport in Hanoi we grabbed a super cheap sim card for our phone and found our hotel shuttle.  The Landmark Hotel is in the old section of Hanoi.  We walked around a bit and found some interesting lunch of sautéed  veggies.  We’re pretty excited to see Sandra tomorrow!

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Turns out it wasn’t sun stroke. Since my condition worsened and my fever hadn’t gone away after 3 days, we decided to get to the hospital in Phuket. Oddly enough, it’s name is Bangkok Hospital. I don’t want to go into the gritty details of my condition, but they gave me fluids and against doctors orders I signed myself out, and I am self medicating. We cross checked all this with our nurse friend, Sandra, who will be joining us in just a few days in Vietnam, and she said self treatment should be fine. I don’t recommend going to a hospital in Thailand. In plain view across from us was a guy with his leg cut open to the bone with a doctor with no mask digging around trying to get something out, beds full of people groaning and crying, and a nurse that has to be THE WORST nurse in the world at giving an I.V.

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Sunstroke is No Joke

Since last post i’ve been laid out on my back in our hut feeling like i’ve been beat on by a gang of monkeys. The sunburn that followed our little adventure wasn’t so bad but other symptoms started creeping in, like stiff joins, a horrible headache, sensitive skin, nausea, and a bloated painful stomach. My first thought was to get on web MD and type in my symptoms (bad idea) for at least a full day we were convinced I had either malaria, west nile, yellow fever, dengue fever, or meningitis, none of those would have been fun. At this point the fever is low enough where we are fairly sure it was a bad case of sun stroke and severe dehydration.

So if you plan on kayaking 8-10 miles in 97 degree heat drink more then just one liter of water.

Ko Yao Kayak Adventure!!

Today we rose with the sun, as we always do, ate a hearty breakfast, lotioned up, grabbed a kayak, and made our way to see the limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay that have been calling to us since we arrived at Suntisook Bungalows.  The tide was pretty low and coming in, so we had to walk it out a bit before being able to hop in.  It probably took us about an hour to reach our destination, four miles according to google maps.

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Unfortunately the water in Thailand is not crystal clear as in Greece, so we couldn’t see much below our paddles.  We investigated around a few of the land structures and happened upon a family of monkeys doin their thang.  They were crab eating macaques, lounging in the shade of the mangroves.  One was trying to open a coconut, and when we came near he yelped at us, hugged his coconut, and scurried a bit away.  Normally we are not big fans of little primates, but these guys were lazy and mildly curious of us in our little, blue kayak.

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We spied a tiny beach, but when we arrived we found that so had many tour company boats.  The little beach, and shallow water surrounding it, was packed with life vest wearing tourists.  I’m not sure why someone would go into 5 foot deep water with a life jacket on, but there were at least 20 bobbing fluorescent vests. We did some exploratory laps around the little islands, and Seth climbed a little bit up one so he could jump off.  Eventually we munched on some lunch of chicken fried rice from our hotel.  Afterwards, we fed our leftovers, and some munched peanuts to the little school of fish nearby.  That was colorful fun.

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We decided it was time to head back another four miles.  We stopped by some more limestone karsts on the way and found some pretty formations and schools of fish hiding beneath.  Paddling back probably took almost twice as long, but our arms and backs are wrecked.  That was a lot of paddling, but well worth it!

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Escape From Coconut Island

We weren’t exactly in love with Khao Lak.  It was quite a touristy town, with many overpriced, touristy restaurants.  Our hotel was nice enough, but there wasn’t anything to do in Khao Lak.  We had one more night before we had a luxury resort stay planned for a week.  We were really looking forward to that.  We decided to head down to Phuket and stay in the old part of town for a night, before heading to our private resort island.  We walked out to the main road to catch a bus down to Phuket.  We weren’t waiting long before I spied a couple in a big, nice SUV.  I asked them if they happened to be heading towards Phuket, and they were, so we hitched a ride with them.  So, the German man, Thai woman couple, with their 6 year old daughter, took us to Phuket.  We sat in the back with the little girl as she played Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja on her phone, and sometimes recorded herself singing along with the car music.  They were nice enough to go out of their way to drop us off in the vicinity of our hotel. That’s the nice part of travel outside the US.  There are certain places where you can do things like hitchhike, and feel completely safe.  I mean, it’s not like we hopped in the back of a truck with guys in fatigues carrying machetes, so don’t use our experience to go and get yourself killed.

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Phuket is an island, with the feel of a city.  It’s a big island and it seems like all of it is very developed.  We stayed in Phuket Town, which is considered the old historical part of Phuket.  Some of the main attractions in Phuket are the Sino-Portuguese style houses.  There were many of those.

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We found a bustling restaurant, filled with Thai people, so we ate there.  The food was delicious and spicy.

After a tip off from a woman in a boutique in Phuket Town, we made our way down to the weekend night market.  The night market is a place for locals and tourists alike.  People go to the night market to buy clothing, backpacks, souvenirs, and dinner.  Seth and I bought some snacks.  Some of them were more tasty than others.  In the adventurous spirit, we sampled some insects, grubs and hoppers to be exact.  The grubs were ok, but now that I’ve tried them I’m not going to be searching them out for a late night snack.  The grasshoppers were not my favorite.  The flavor was too much like chewing on a stick that you pulled out of the mud, and the legs had spikes that pricked my tongue.  I think I’ll stick to snacks like sausages and jack fruit from now on.

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In the morning we went in search of a special type of spindly, white noodles, a Phuket traditional breakfast.  We found the noodles, I think, but we realized soon that we were in a Chinese restaurant eating dim sum, rather than Thai food.  Awesome.  The dim sum was the same as at home and different.  We had har gow, but also little bowls of fish soup with ginger.  And when we ordered our noodles, they came in a soup, not a curry.  But, it was all very good, and a great way to start our day.

We, finally, made it over to the dock to catch a water taxi to the private resort island of The Village at Coconut Island.  We were, almost, immediately disappointed when we saw the beach was quite unexceptional.  And, once we made it to our room, the disappointment grew.  The room was not the same as the ones advertised on the website, and it was dirty.  Gross.  The hotel sent someone to tidy up, but it didn’t change much.  There were so many other things wrong with the situation, but not worth getting into, because we got out.  We had to wait until the next morning to talk with the appropriate people, and after doing so we left to another island.  We finally escaped!

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Now we are on the cozy little island of Ko Yao Noi.  We’re staying in the Suntisook Bungalows and it feels like paradise.

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Yesterday, we rented a scooter and scoot around the island to check it out.  We found a hard to reach beach, and Seth showed me his muscles as he opened a sprouted coconut.  For those of you who don’t remember (or do) we went to Hawaii for our honeymoon.  While there, our friend Annie told us that there was a chunk of coconutty goodness hiding inside a sprouted coconut.  But, when we tried to find one, we spent over an hour opening the coconuts with no reward.  This time we opened the coconut to find a delicious coconut foam, with the crunchy texture somewhat like a watermelon.  We learned later that the coconut tree grows on this foam and the coconut meat for 2 years before sprouting roots.  While we were enjoying our delicious coconut snack on the beach, a man approached us and helped us dislodge the coconut meat for eating.  He then went and found us some fresh tamarind from a tree nearby, and ended up climbing it to fetch us some more.  Though he spoke no English and us no Thai, we hung out for a bit before leaving the beach.

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We had to leave, because we didn’t want to be late for our cooking class.  Mena, of Mena’s Thai Cookery, taught us how to prepare a variety of Thai dishes.  She was a wonderful woman with a wealth of knowledge when it comes to cooking.  And, to top it off, we ended up with a very, very good Thai meal in the end.  She should open a restaurant.

We have a spectacular view of the sunrise over the Phang Nga Bay and I’m laying in a hammock as I write this post, watching the tide roll in.  Today we will spend the day relaxing, but we have about a week to do what we want, on this island or another, and in our near future we have kayaking, snorkeling, and perhaps fishing.  It’s pretty exciting.

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Phuket Weekend Night Market

Below are a few videos of Berkley’s first and second intentional insect meals. When in Rome..

The market was huge and covered in tasty looking food. The shopping on the other hand was distinctly focused on tourist, although we were able to find a few good souvenirs.

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Made it to Phuket


Khao Sok

Up early and off to Khao Sok national park, we were picked up by the tour company at around 8 am and by 9 am we were in the jungle. Our guide Ja was a humorous, ex park ranger who joked with us while leading us through the park trails. We spotted some monkeys (langurs), a stick bug, squirrels, and many birds. After an hour hike we stopped for a brief swim in the river. The water was cool, refreshing and filled with carp, needle fish and catfish of all sizes. We stopped for lunch and had a rather bland tourist version of massaman curry and some fried chicken. After lunch was a bamboo raft trip down the Khao Sok river.  We stopped to have tea boiled in rungs of bamboo, served in bamboo cups.  As our tea was simmering one of the raft captains took us for a little stroll through the jungle nearby.  We saw a giant durian tree with young spiky durian.  It’s no surprise that these fruit can be fatal if one falls from the tree.  They can become about the size of a basketball and is encrusted in hard, sharp spikes.  We, then came upon some rubber trees.  Berkley was intrigued, because the little bowls collecting rubber were mostly full, with a plump white ball.  Our raft man didn’t speak much English, but with some miming he told her it was ok to touch it.  It was springy and wet, just as you would expect fresh rubber to feel.  What she didn’t expect was the smell.  Sadly I learned this too late, as everybody had already followed suit and touched the rubber.  It turns out that rubber smells absolutely abhorrent.  The smell clung to our fingers throughout the rest of the day, despite many washing attempts.

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As we were floating down the lazy river on our bamboo raft, I spied a rope swing.  I swung like Tarzan off the random dangling rope. Berkley shot some pretty great video of me swinging on the rope. Almost as amazing as my dads video of me catching a huge tarpon on the beach in mexico.

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We continued on, and our raft captain pointed out a mangrove snake coiled up in a tree.  Pretty neat.  Quite soon after it began to rain thick, heavy rain.  Within minutes we were drenched to the bone.  It sure put the rain in rainforest.

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