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Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
A few pictures from the past few months in the states

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Denpasar, Indonesia


First: I've heard that there was an earthquake in Java. Since we've gotten a couple of messages, I'd like to tell anyone who is worried that we are fine and were nowhere near there. It seems like the news is always saying that something terrible has happened here, and I always feel bad when we get worried e-mails asking if we're okay. It's true that this is a pretty unlucky country, but when you realize how big this place is, you start to see a clearer picture. Indonesia is a massive: 3,200 miles from east to west. To put that in perspective, the widest distance across the continental United States, from the end of Washington State to the southern tip of Florida, is only about 2,900 miles. And just think about how many terrible things (earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes ... ) happen between those borders! So, anyway, no need to worry. Even if you hear news about Bali or Lombok, where we'll be for the next month, keep in mind that those two islands cover huge areas and the chances of us being affected by any disasters are pretty small.

Anyway, on to the blog ...

We arrived here in Kuta Beach, the most popular tourist area in Indonesia, four days ago. The main reason we've stuck around so long is that good intenet connections are easy to come by here and Michael was working out the details of a job (which he got!) starting in November. It's a great oppotunity doing something he loves, and we're both really excited about it. But this is a travel blog, so back to travel ...

Kuta Beach, for all its over-done commercial tackiness (there's a Hard Rock Cafe here - need I say more?) is really a special place. Gamelan music floats out of the tourist shops, and every where you turn you find you're about to step on a tiny little, neatly arranged offering of flower petals, woven palm leaves and, for some reason, they almost always contain a Ritz cracker. The Balinese hand-create these little works of art every single morning to placate the Hindu gods, and they leave them in the middle of roads a footpaths. That they are inevitably trampled doesn't seem to matter. The pervasive but subtle smell of insence - part of the offerings - is inexorably linked to all my mental images of this place.

Kuta is a great place to shop, if you don't mind bargaining, especially for someone like me who can drift around staring at all the beautiful woodcarvings and brightly colored lush-island-style cushions and lamps for hours. It's also a great place to load up on cheap, good-quality black-market DVDs if, you know, you're the sort of person who buys those.

The beach here is nice, and apparently it's great for surfing. But there are so many unrelenting hawkers at the beach that we prefer to stay away. Actually, last night we spent some time there watching the sunset (the only time we've set foot on sand since we arrived here) and were offered everything from soft drinks to a realistic-looking handmade bow and arrow set. I'd love to know how many tourists have actually attempted to bring one of those on a plane.

Anyway, we haven't taken any pictures here. I know, I know, but we've been here before and took plenty of pictures then. Since I'm writing a blog entry, though, and since the connection is amazing right now, I googled and downloaded these pictures to give a better sense of this place.

Next stop, Ubud - cultural mecca of Bali and (for my mom, and anyone else who's read it,) the setting of the "love" section of "Eat, Love, Pray." I went there before and loved it, so I can't wait to see it again!

permalink written by  katieandmichael on September 4, 2009 from Denpasar, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Tomohon, Indonesia


Sulawesi has been an amazing place on so many levels. From the Torajan funerals to the Togean Islands, I can't imagine a more exciting destination. With one more week here on this island, we decided to see what Tomahon had to offer.

Tomohon will never be the favorite of guide books and travel adventure stories, but it will definitely be a favorite of ours. There are no big monuments or historic landmarks. There is no beach or crashing waves. What Tomohon has to offer is a quiet, peaceful, beautiful little town filled with flowers and friendly folks, all in the foreground of a great big volcano covered in trees and green grass. The climate here is cool. In fact at night, its best to wear a light jacket or at least long sleeves. This comes as a welcomed change from the hot equatorial sun that has been shining hard on us for quite some time.

Perhaps the best activity in Tomohon is to go for a walk. We spent time exploring the little side streets lined with tiny houses with well kept lawns and flower gardens. We also had a nice little stroll to the foot of the great volcano, just west of town.

It's been a great last stop in Sulawesi that will not be forgotten. It gave us time to process the last month and gear up for the big move to Bali

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 31, 2009 from Tomohon, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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The Togean Islands

Gorontalo, Indonesia


In our time on the road, Katie and I have developed a theory about adventure traveling. It's that the more difficult a place is to get to, the nicer it is and the greater the reward. Our theory continues to hold true as we just came back from Kandidiri, in the Togean Islands just off the coast of Sulawesi.

This was a destination that we had been looking forward to with great anticipation. The same can not be said for the journey. To get there via Gorantalo, we took a cramped wooden ferry filled to well above capacity for about 17 hours. Our seat was especially hot, due to the fact that we were sitting right next to the motor, which put off heat approximately the temperature of Satan's bathwater. Although we were given mats to lay on for the all night journey, there was no sleeping in this oven. One cool thing about the trip was that a curious dolphin started swimming near the boat, and as we looked out the window, it took a great leap completely out of water. Enough of that, we got there. finally we got there!

And as bad as the journey might have seemed at the time, we realized in an instant that it was all worth it when we took our first step off of the boat. Actually it was even before that. As our Island was the last stop on the boat's route through to Ampana, we we're amazed as soon as we entered the vicinity of the Togeans. the sea around us turned from a dark impenetrable blue, to a crystal clear greenish shade that revealed every detail of the bottom more than 20 feet down in places.

Our final destination was the island of Kandidiri. Imagine, if you will, water so clear that in pictures it creates the illusion that there is no water.

And pictures never do enough to describe the truly beautiful things on this earth. Our temporary island home, like every island in the Togeans, was surrounded by brilliant coral, teeming with brightly colored tropical fish.

This brings me to an addiction I've developed while on this trip. Yes, I admit I have a problem. I am completely addicted to snorkeling. I'm sure that my eventual return to Texas will result in withdrawal symptoms to rival all others. If you come to my house and ever find me in the bathtub with a snorkel sticking out and legs kicking, please just give me five more minutes.

Moving on, the snorkeling was amazing here. The diving outfit operated by the people who owned our bungalow allowed snorkelers to tag along for free. So, we took a trip with them to a neighboring island with the most incredible coral reefs. We also snorkeled everyday off the shore of our island

Apart from our time exploring the clear waters, Kandidiri was a perfectly relaxing place to do a little reading, thinking, good eating, and planning our next move in this incredible journey.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 26, 2009 from Gorontalo, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Necro-tourism in Sulawesi?

Rantepao, Indonesia


It sounds a little strange, but one of the parts of our trip that I had been anticipating most was the journey into central Sulawesi for the funeral season. I had heard about the breathtaking landscape, the still-functional traditional houses with soaring u-shaped roofs, and the amazingly kind people in Tana Toraja when I was living in Jakarta, but hadn't been able to visit. At the time I just mentally tagged it as one of those places I hoped I could see before I die. And if you haven't already picked up on it, death was a major theme of our visit.

Rantepao is a little town smack-in-the-heart of the sprawling K-shaped island that is Sulawesi. It's up in the mountains, so the air is mercifully cool all day, even pleasantly chilly (that was a treat!) in the mornings. Michael, Sebastian and I arrived on Sunday, Aug. 9 expecting to battle throngs of tourists on package tours, like our guidebook warned. But, "touristy" in Indonesia is not like spring in South Padre. We saw other foreigners but not droves filling up the streets, and everyone seemed to be respectfully observant of the culture. Of course, we were all there hoping to luck into being part of local funeral ceremonies, so construe that as you will.

You have to understand that death for Torajans is not an end, it's just when a soul goes on a journey to a different place. When a person embarks on this journey, the Torajans believe it helps to throw a giant send-off with as many guests as possible. And you should also understand that there is a "funeral season" here. The deceased member of the family is embalmed, then sits in the family's home until the arrangements have been made for the funeral.

We spent our first couple of days soaking up the cute country-town vibe and walking around the surrounding countryside. On our second night in town, we walked into a souvenir shop and met Martin, a free-lance funeral photographer who likes to spend as much time as possible away from home, and who was happy to take us to some funerals he knew about.

We rented an extra motorbike and left early the next morning to buy a carton of cigarettes - the typical guests' gift to the deceased's family. It was a beautiful drive past gorgeous houses and rice paddies, with mountains poking up into the early-morning fog.

We attended two celebrations: a "small" two-day gathering of hundreds of villages (which we attended both days), and a "medium-large" six-day bonanza with thousands of attendants (where we only stayed for about half an hour). No one really took notice of us at the bigger one. There was already a sea of white people with telescopic cameras when we arrived. At the smaller one, however, we were eagerly greeted honored guests. I'm sure this sounds like I'm justifying a voyeuristic intrusion into someone's grief, and maybe I am since I have to admit I felt a little slimy prowling around looking for a funeral invitation, but I cannot fully express the warmth, hospitality and excitement the family of the deceased displayed at our arrival.

They were sacrificing pigs when we showed up at the first, smaller ceremony. That was ... well, disturbing, but remarkably quick and surely more humane than the way most of the pigs I eat meets their end. The men butchered the pigs on palm leaves and stuffed the meat into bamboo poles, which they put on a fire to cook with some wild herbs. It was amazing food. They also gave us some home-brewed palm alcohol, which was less delicious.

Interestingly, the family was Catholic. It's been a while since I've been to a Catholic funeral in the states, but I seem to recall them going a bit differently. Some things, it seems though, are universal: when the English-speaking family member asked about our religion, and what sort of time commitments we might have, and we confirmed that we are Catholic, she said, "oh, well in that case, you have time for communion." Good ol' Catholic guilt. Of course, we wouldn't have missed out on a Torajan funeral mass. Really, it wasn't so different, except that the kneelers were unpadded wood and there weren't any instruments.

After the mass, the family took the coffin to the forest and placed it in a prepared tomb. They thanked us again and again for sharing our time with them.

I'll post pictures soon, but right now I have to go. The poor woman at this internet cafe hasn't eaten anything all day since it's Ramaddan here, it's closing time, and I'm the only thing standing in between here and food. I'll add to this a little later.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 14, 2009 from Rantepao, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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The Pelni experience

Nunukan, Indonesia


Getting from Borneo to Sulawesi, the next island to the east, isn't as easy as one might think. There aren't any direct flights, even though there are airports all over the islands. Michael, Sebastian and I could have flown from eastern Sabah (the northern province in Borneo) west to Kuala Lumpur, then doubled back and flown east over where we'd been to eventually get to our destination. However, we like to consider ourselves intrepid, and have to consider ourselves poor. So, we hopped south across the border to the Indonesian side of this massive island and embarked on a 34-hour sea voyage on the "Bukit Rinjani," one of the gigantic ferries operated by Indonesian company Pelni.

We rode in economy class, not entirely dissimilar to a sober version of steerage class in the movie "Titanic." We're not really that hard-core; we didn't realize that you can only buy tickets in semi-private "class" cabins at actual Pelni offices, not agents' offices, and there wasn't a Pelni office in Nunukan. It turned out to be a lot of fun and a great experience, but it was some of the most intense traveling we've done.

I should note that, unlike our usual entries, I am writing this particular blog note with the main goal of helping other backpackers who might be google-ing this route. Here is my advice: first, as with all experiences in life, keep a good sense of humor and you'll enjoy yourself much more. Also, keep handy the things that help you sleep (you know, IPOD, earplugs, eye mask, motion sickness pills...) Lock everything else away. I'd heard that, but didn't lock my shoes up and someone stole them. They were good quality hiking sandals and I miss them. I mean, who steals SHOES? Oh well, I should have been more careful.

I mentioned motion sickness pills. Actually, the boat is so massive you don't feel any movement. I get seasick, but not at all on this ship. I only took the pills at night to knock me out.

Also, I have no problem using bathrooms of varying standards - I've spent too much time in Asia to be a germophobe - but these take the cake. On our second day aboard we came to the realization that, being the only foreigners on the 2000-person ferry, we automatically had some sort of special exemption from the normal rules. Use the second class bathrooms and showers! Go to the upper decks as much as possible. STAY THERE when you hear the announcement that directs everyone to their seats for the ticket check or they'll lock you (along with all the other economy passengers) below deck until they're done inspecting everyone's tickets. That's right: they lock people in, Titanic-style, several times for an hour or more each.

And, my final piece of advice: bring food. Peanut butter, bread, tuna and crackers, fruit ... whatever you like, just stock up before you get to Nunukan. The crew supplies everyone in economy with prepared meals, but even the rice is inedible. Alternatively, you could live off of Ramen noodles that you buy on board. I don't know about the stuff at the restaurants, but don't eat the free food.

Now that I've scared everyone off, I really want to express that I'm so glad we had the Pelni experience. It's the true, authentic sort of travel that connects you with the locals and hones your Bahasa Indonesia. There was an arcade, a snack bar on the top deck where people sang their hearts out to karaoke dvds, and all sorts of fun, hidden places. You can explore the levels and find all the outside places of peace and quiet, and just stare out for miles and miles across the ocean. I didn't see any dolphins, you might, but I saw the most amazing flying fish that could actually fly for several minutes.

Anyway, I recommend the journey. Have fun!

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 4, 2009 from Nunukan, Indonesia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Mamutik Island

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia


It's good to be back in touch. I can't think of a better way to get back into the blog than writing about a beautiful island. Mamutik, located in Sabah, is just offshore from the provicial capital, Kota Kinabalu. Sabah has a reputation for beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters and laid back islands.

Mamutik lived up to all this and more, as we spent the last three days and two nights camping, cooking out, and snorkeling.

In preparation, we rented tents, loaded up on groceries and supplies, and got our snorkel gear ready. Then it was off to the pier to catch our boat to paradise

After we arrived, we knew that this island get away was just what we had been needing after a long stretch of traveling across Borneo. We spent time snorkeling, swimming, cooking over a fire, and we went for a little walk on the second afternoon. The first time we got in the water, Katie was bitten by a little fish. I saw him through my mask, and he couldn't have been three inches long. However, he left an amazingly big mark on her leg.

I guess it's not the size of the fish in the fight, but the size of the fight in the fish.

Apart from the mini attack, everything was perfect, in that we had nothing else to do but relax. In a place like Mamutik, time doesn't matter. There is only one schedule and it's determined by your stomach, which we had no problem keeping full.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on August 1, 2009 from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Brunei, the Abode of Peace ... shouldn't all country names be this serene?

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei


While making our way up the northeast coast of Borneo, Michael, James, Sebastian and I decided to make a two-day stop in Brunei. To be honest, we were as interested in the passport stamp as we were in any other aspect of this relatively-expensive, uber-moral country, but it turned out to be a really interesting, somewhat incongruous take on life in

Borneo and the benefits of oil.

Describing the Kingdom of Brunei requires a lot of superlatives. It's one of the planet's tiniest and richest countries, has (possibly) the most successful current monarchy and the longest currently-ruling dynasty, with a sultan who is one of the richest people in the world. His eleven-word title is also the longest title I've ever seen, and (total speculation here) he might hold some sort of world record for the number of times his picture can be viewed by one person standing in one place.

But, hey, if I lived in Brunei I'd be proud of him too. Every Brunesian gets free education, free medical care, low-interest loans, and lots of other perks like free access to sporting events and amusement parks. True, the Sultan has embarrassing amounts of money and all of these cost a pittance compared to what he gets from oil, but how many of the super-rich and powerful have used their money for such large-scale social improvement?

Unfortunately, with all the good comes suppression of freedoms and forced conformity, so I suppose their pride is actually a mixture of genuine admiration, naivety and fear of rocking the boat. There's always a downside, I suppose.

The four of us stayed in a youth hostel to save money, and unfortunately it was strictly separated by sex. That meant I had to stay in a 12 bed women's dorm room by myself while the guys stayed together. It seemed pretty funny to us to have a boys' side and a girls' side, like being back in school, but that's the way they do things. Alcohol is also illegal in the country. I suppose that's working out better there than it did in the US.

Anyway, we walked around the city, saw a beautiful mosque, had some great Indian food, took a boat tour of the floating villages on the edges of town, had some great satay, and went to a museum of all the opulent things foreign leaders have given the sultan as gifts. My personal favorites were the silver and gemstone bowls from Cambodia's king (a VERY poor country that really couldn't afford that sort of present) and two inlaid matching coffee tables with pictures of identical tigers made out of precious stones. Classy.

The kids at the floating village loved James' tatoos

On an unrelated note, here's a picture of one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen, taken in Miri, the city we stayed in just before going to Brunei. Enjoy!

permalink written by  katieandmichael on July 28, 2009 from Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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Long house, in the middle of the jungle

Kapit, Malaysia

Here in Borneo, in 2009, there is a group of people who are preserving age-old traditions. At the same time, they want to stay in touch with a world that is changing rapidly around them. There is a need for balance, because if they and there way of life are to survive, they must adapt and thrive without being forced into the fold of mainstream society. The forests and rivers are shrinking as fast as the cities are growing toward them. More and more of these people depend on money to buy many of there goods from town. More and more the children are growing up and moving away to the cities to find work. In spite of all of this, in small pockets all over Borneo, The Iban tribal way of life is still surviving and the Iban mentality is, in some ways, intact.

One way that many Ibans have found to earn money, is to open there homes to visitors, who want a glimpse into there world. We were lucky, not only to be invited into there world, but also to have been the first group of tourists to visit this particular family. We were fortunate enough to have been able to visit this family before they could form any opinions about what tourists want, which too often compromises there traditions. We followed this family around for three days. In these three days, they carried out there Normal daily routines.

To understand the Iban culture is to understand there home, the longhouse. The typical Iban longhouse is home to many families. They are usually one long building, divided into separate dwelling areas for each family. The longhouse is the center of their universe and the very thing that unites them all. It is the home to Iban tribes all over Borneo. This particular longhouse is home to 44 families. Everyone knows everyone and shares with everyone. The longhouse never sleeps, as the men are always coming and going to check their nets, traps, and crops. The women are perpetually cooking, as they eat more than anyone I've ever seen. Some of that could however be attributed to there legendary hospitality. No guest will ever go hungry in this longhouse. The There is a chief, who was elected 12 years ago by the families, to act as a mediator, decision maker, and an ambassador. There are also several young children, who are not old enough to work, running around and playing at all times.

Our trip started at a foggy boat pier late at night where we were greeted by two young men from the longhouse. They took us for a ride up the river in a small boat to the first longhouse, where we met our host family.

First, there was the father, who was quiet, but warm in the way he was quick to give a reassuring smile when we didn't understand what was going on. Then there were the children. There were three little ones, two boys and one girl. They were really close in age ranging from six to ten. They were also really cute. They wanted to play with us, and were really excited when we taught them how to operate our cameras. They were running around snapping off photos from floor to ceiling. They were especially excited to see there own photos on the viewing screen.

Last, but certainly not least was the mother and matriarch of the family. She was a boisterous lady who loved to entertain. She liked to dance to strange electronic karaoke music at really high volumes. She was really sweet and tried so hard to make sure we were fitting in. She especially loved Katie and liked to dress her in various Iban outfits to dance in, on of which was the most elaborate full body dress, made by hand out of the tiniest little beads. It would have taken an expert, which she clearly was, months to construct such an intricately designed garment. She even gave Katie the most beautiful necklace made by hand. She was so concerned with our happiness that she fed us seven times in one day. It's also rude to turn down food, which made it complicated. We ate ourselves miserable trying to maintain all of our manners as a show of appreciation to our host family. It was all in kindness though and we didn't have the heart to stop as she brought out dish after dish as her smile became wider and wider.

Between meals, we had the most fun. We checked the fishing nets, swam in the river, sat around drinking Tuac, the locally brewed wine made from rice, played with the children, taught a little English, learned a little Iban, and tried to learn as much as we could about our host family. We even had a meeting with the chief, who also fed us. He asked us about ourselves and answered all of our questions. Finally he told us that we were welcome back to the longhouse anytime we found ourselves in the area.

We left with an experience that was genuinely one of a kind. We made memories that will never go away, with a group of good people trying to maintain a more simple way of life.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on July 19, 2009 from Kapit, Malaysia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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The Rainforest World Music Festival, 3 of the best days ever

Kuching, Malaysia

(Katie - 7/31)

If anyone is still checking this blog, hello! And, sorry for the long hiatus. Despite the heading, Michael and I are actually in Kota Kinabalu, the capitol of one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. The city is named after nearby Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. Our original plan was to climb the mountain, but since we discovered that there is a two-month waiting list for that, we're going to an island to snorkel and camp instead. Life can be so rough.

Anyway, since it has been so long since we've updated, I decided to dedicate this blog entry to one of my favorite experiences of the last few months, and really a major highlight of the trip so far: the 3-day music festival in the rainforest near Kuching, Borneo. Hence the incorrect city and entry date information above.

We had planned to go to this festival before we started our trip, we recruited our new friend Sebatian whom we met in Cambodia, and we had even convinced our friend James from back home to come across planet and meet us out here for the event. Needless to say, our expectations were high. It was even better than we anticipated.

The festival brought amazingly talented bands from all over the world together to Sarawak Cultural Village, a venue with stages built right into the edge of the jungle and ancient-style traditional houses for daytime workshops. It was a beautiful setting to see the way people express themselves through music, from preserving dying musical traditions to creating brand-new fusions of styles, from every corner of the globe.

I particularly liked a Malaysian/Indian/Australian band that played all sorts of music, from traditional Malaysian songs to jazz. They were really cool, I bought their CD. Michael's favorite band was a Portuguese traditional/hard rock group. There was also an awesome band from Tanzania that, according to the emcee, had to walk three days to reach the airport to get to the festival. They made all their own instruments out of electrical cords and wires and other found objects, and played with so much unbridled joy and energy it was contagious.

Speaking of contagious, the orgaziners were clearly worried about starting an international H1N1 outbreak and talked about face masks and hand santizer at every opportunity. It added a weird kind of surrealism to the events, especially when they asked everyone in the crowd to wear a mask while they took an audience picture. PR, I guess?

Anyway, we didn't come down with swine/bird/monkey or any other type of flu. Even if we had, it would have been worth it. We met some really incredible people, spent a long weekend in gorgeous surroundings, learned a lot about music, and just crazy amounts of fun dancing barefoot in the mud to exotic music.

permalink written by  katieandmichael on July 12, 2009 from Kuching, Malaysia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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An overdue hello, now from Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

(Michael) From Stung Treng, Cambodia (despite what the title says)

Hello again family and friends. I would like to first give a shout out to Evan Michael Nachman, my newest nephew. I hope your first week of humanhood is all you expected it to be.
I'd also like to apologize for the long gap between postings. As we make our way through the more remote regions, internet use becomes more and more difficult. Small interrnet cafes can be found occasianaly, but the connections are usually painfully slow. the most amusing part however is that some of them have chickens roaming through the shops as you type.
Right now, we are waiting for a bus to take us to Ban Lung, so I'm afraid I only have time to let everyone know that we are okay and having a great time. We have so many stories and photos that we are dying to share with you. Oops, the guy just said that the bus is leaving

permalink written by  katieandmichael on May 27, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: Katie and Michael's Travel Blog
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