The Beginning

Forgive the cheesy title, but it was impossible to resist. Thanks to our wonderful families, we were able to return to the US and have a perfect wedding two weeks later. Our Bangkok mission was successful with the help of a very top-notch Sikh Irish-Catholic-educated tailor (seriously top notch, I think all US diplomats’ suits might come from his shop). After Eoin’s adventure at the tailor, I decided my never-seen dress from JCPenny.com was unworthy, so we went to a dress maker down the road, I described what I was looking for, and we left with a beautiful dress a few days later.

So surrounded by our family, on the most weather-perfect day we could have asked for, we said our vows, exchanged our Rings from New Zealand, and started the real adventure.

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The End.

Bangkok

I am well aware that it has been close to two months since we returned to the starting point of what I’ve been calling The Trip. But it feels too incomplete to not finish the blog off properly! So today I present you with not one but TWO bonus posts.

The last week of our journey we spent in Bangkok, the world’s hottest capital city (though it has nothing on this past week in Boston).

Negating all of our experience haggling on transportation prices the very first time we ventured out, we accidentally took a private long tail boat a few minutes down the river that runs through Bangkok and forms a popular transportation path.

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At least it was a nice ride. We managed to take the public ferry back, which cost more than 10 times less.

One of the days we were there was a Buddhist holy day, so different stages and statues had been set up in a large square. Despite the heat at the middle of the day, it was packed with people. We finally tested the umbrella defense against the sun and were ashamed we hadn’t tried it sooner. It’s not as good as taking a nap in a walk in freezer, but it helps.

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There were all sorts of different monks; this group had obviously made a pilgrimage from somewhere. They were impressive.

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We visited the grounds of the Grand Palace and were impressed by the enforced dress code – no shorts, knee length or longer skirts, no tank tops. A woman at the gate with a bullhorn singled out anyone deemed unworthy. While technically flip flops were also banned, she didn’t seem to mind those and thankfully let me by without mishap.

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We went to the supposed largest market in Asia and made up for only buying magnets everywhere else we had been. I tried coconut ice cream with corn, which I will not be eating again.

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There were so many people, but by taking frequent breaks for snacks or drinks, we managed to avoid people-claustrophobia.

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We spent our final three days at The Peninsula, a five star hotel and one of the premier hotels of Bangkok. How could we pass it up when the entire bill was less than two nights at a modest hotel in either the US or Ireland? Needless to say, we did not quite fit in with the crowd that requires access to a helipad atop the roof and Rolls Royces for hire. I took great amusement in thinking about what the housekeeper must have thought about the laundry I did in the sink.

We still managed to enjoy the luxuries it had to offer – including ice water at the pool (which, by the way, had a water temperature of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and was still greatly refreshing), outside weather gauges in the room, a tiny balcony, and a bathtub complete with a television.

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Many people questioned why we were spending an entire week in Bangkok when we could have just stayed on Koh Tao for longer and kept diving while avoiding the steambath of a city. We did have a mission (to get a tailored suit – see the result in the next post!), but we were also curious. Also, I knew there was no way we’d be able to see even the little bit we did without carefully pacing ourselves over several days. I learned a lot from the heat of Cartagena, Colombia. We stayed outside the main backpacker neighborhood (really just a single street) and just ventured there for an afternoon, so maybe that had something to do with it. We certainly didn’t have a Hangover 2 experience, but the movie happened to be on TV on our last night, which was a pretty fitting way to end the adventure.

Phuket and Koh Tao

Crossing the border between Malaysia and Thailand was pretty easy, but for some reason it took lots of stops – one just to pick up forms, one for the exit stamp, and another for entrance procedures. No fear though, the two Thai ladyboys/kathoey on the bus with us made sure we did everything correctly. And they liked the henna on my arm and leg.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect from Phuket. It’s known as one of the major party centers in Thailand, but it also has some of the nicest beaches (or at least they were before the deluge of careless tourists). We ended up really enjoying it because the people watching was some of the best on the entire trip so far. So many terrible fashion choices…just because every tourist shop sells the same droopy pants and threadbare singlets does not mean you look good wearing them! The beach was busy, but beautiful; clear, blue, ridiculously warm water, soft sand, and no sharp rocks.

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Anyway, our next stop was Koh Tao, a tiny island that has become one of the biggest learning centers for diving in the world. We had wanted to try scuba diving since we started travelling, and Koh Tao was the perfect place: reputable schools, great dive sites, and ridiculously cheap prices. We spent one night in a grimy, cockroach filled dorm room while we chose a school, and then the next day moved into sparkling private hotel room paid for by the school 🙂

We did our open water course in four days with another couple. It was so much fun and we had such a great teacher that we went straight into the advanced open water course so that we could continue on with the same guy. And then the school was running a special day trip out to a more remote dive site so of course we had to do that too. Twelve dives in five days is no joke! It was so much fun though that we abandoned our vague plans of only staying a week and then going up to the north of Thailand for the rest of our time.

I will forever hold a grudge against the turtles of Thailand though. Koh Tao means Turtle Island. We were on at least five dives where turtles were spotted by other divers. We followed our instructor to a known turtle home at night when he should have been sleeping. But did we see ANY turtles?! NOPE. Really now. It was like they purposely all hid from us.

We did see some really awesome things though: parrot fish, angel fish, bat fish, massive barracuda (creepy fellows, too many teeth), massive school of smaller barracuda, moray eels, adorable gobi fish and their shrimp buddies (the gobi protects the almost blind shrimp in exchange for some food), PUFFERFISH (they were the cutest things down there), blue spotted stingrays, Nemo (clownfish), Christmas tree worms, giant clams, on and on and on. We did two night dives, visited a shipwreck twice, and went on playground excursions through awesome swim-throughs: small natural cave things with multiple entries/exits (often barely enough room for you and your tank and the source of many divers’ cuts and scrapes…totally worth it).

We just kept extending our stay every few days, alternating our time between under the sea and sitting on the beach. We fell in love with the Ninja Pancake Man and his competitor, the Regular Pancake Man, and frequented both as often as two people mildly concerned about fitting into wedding clothes would dare (…every other day or so). These were Indian-style pancakes, as thin as European-style crepes, but fried to crispy, chewy perfection in copious amounts of oil and butter, and topped with such deliciousness as Nutella, banana, chocolate sauce, and FRESH coconut shavings (not that dried stuff you can buy in a bag). We had multiple types of curry, every type of fruit juice/shake/smoothie under the sun, and pizza at a restaurant run by an Italian expat. Sunset was a daily event on Koh Tao. Every bar along the water sets out mats and cushions each afternoon, plants little trees in the sand, and carves out hollows for candles. We went a few times, and while we never saw any truly spectacular sunsets, the atmosphere was so relaxed and happy that it made everything enjoyable. Some of the bars had fire spinners that we could see when coming in from the night dives, and one night we got to see one of them spinning sparklers of some sort that made him look like a human firework.

In short, we were very sad to leave 😦

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Malaysia

We are having a lot of trouble uploading pictures on this connection. It tells us that some are uploaded but doesn’t include them. I’ve given up! I’ll fix it another time.

Malaysia was originally just an obstacle between Singapore and Thailand, we didn’t even know if we were going to go over it by land or just fly over it. We ended up going slowly through the country, taking well over a week to get from one side to the other.
Driving from Singapore to our first stop, Malacca, was pretty uneventful. There was no stark contrast between the two sides of the border like in other countries (see Bolivia vs Chile!). What we did see were massive drainage systems all along the highway to deal with the huge monsoons they get here. They even had drains cut into any hills meeting the road to help control the flow of water. There were groups of those big grey bearded monkeys just minding their own business on the side of the road at points and otherwise it was just an expanse of jungle in every direction. Every few minutes we would pass a crew of workers with strimmers (weed whackers for you Americans?) cutting the grass along the highway. It seemed like a very inefficient way to deal with the grass but there were enough toll bridges to cover those costs. There seems to be an unbreakable rule that if you’re on a good road in a poor country, you will hit too many toll bridges to count. And the tolls usually aren’t cheap either!
I can’t really describe what the city of Malacca was like, because despite spending 3 days there, we didn’t walk more than 15 minutes from the hostel. We stayed in the ‘old town’ which housed both Chinatown and Little India. Through both Singapore and Malaysia every town and city has a Chinatown and a Little India.
This is where we discovered real Indian food. Omgggggggg so good. We really just ate our way through Malaysia. The indians make tea that is really sweet and mixed with sweetened condensed milk instead of regular milk. It’s so sweet it is almost syrupy. So amazing (this is coming from someone who drinks his tea with 2 sugars anyway).
They make Roti, which is like a crepe but much less healthy, and is fried in butter and also really sweet. And they also have loads of types of naan bread (including one called Kashmiri, destroyed in sugar with raisins and honey) and chicken briyani which is like curry and rice.
After trying to force the savoury food in Bali and Singapore down my throat this was a welcome change. Kasey forgot to mention in the last post but they were selling fish head soup in Singapore – I’ve a picture of one menu actually!

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That was the whole menu, and as willing as I am to try new things, I think that is where I draw the line!

We stayed in a hostel that had a canal outside its back door. Venice style, but sadly no gondolas. Walking along the canal was the quickest way to get to the cheap Indian restaurant so we made good use of it. We ate breakfast every day at a cafe on the canal too.

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I should just throw the rest of the Malacca pics here too, we really didn’t do anything worth mentioning! The famous attraction was some red buildings nearby, I think they were Buddhist temples? Or churches? I didn’t even notice them being red when I was walking past them and was wondering what all the Chinese tourists were taking photos of. Colourblindness strikes yet again.

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We had a big issue with getting our laundry done. Between power outages (surprisingly common on this side of the world!) and closing times (everyone disappears around midday and i don’t think it is for a siesta) and just not being able to find anyone to do them (guest houses required you to be a guest and our guesthouse didn’t provide the service – typical!). We are trying our best to avoid being the stereotypical smelly travellers but people just make it so difficult sometimes!!

Ok next stop was Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is known to the locals). It was only like 4 hours in a bus (pfft, down the road!) which was really nice. Sadly that’s not the trend!
My sandals were coming apart again; the superglue we used to keep them together in South America was wearing out. They fit really nicely so we weren’t prepared to fork out money for new ones when we could get these ones fixed. We hunted down a cobbler – it turns out there were a few sitting outside of a major train station near our hostel. It seemed dodgy but from experience it seems like the most dirty or badly set up places are the most legit.
The first guy we went up to had some broken English and took my sandals from me. I sat on a box for the next twenty minutes while he finished off another mans shoes, then glued and stitched mine. He charged the other man 10 ringgit and charged me twice as much for the same thing. I wasn’t upset at all (it’s the gringo tax), it worked out at about €5 for a good as new pair of shoes.
Here he is, he was kind enough to let us take a picture!

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We had Japanese food – I discovered ramen and got more chopstick practice. Kasey bought this stuff, it is a coconut snack thing cooked in bamboo sticks. It was… Different. Eating from stalls on the street is definitely a great way to go though. Half the time it is just impossible to know what you are eating until you try it.

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Well we obviously went sightseeing, here are some Petronas twin tower pics!

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And we went to a big shopping area because the bus stopped there… It was very upmarket, if you wanted to go to the toilet on the same floor as the entrance you had to pay for the ‘VIP’ toilet, otherwise you could just go up or downstairs. Here’s the fancy fountain outside.

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We took a trip out to the Batu caves. They are a Hindu holy site, the main cave was covered in Hindu altars and had a huge cemented floor. To me it seemed really desecrated from its original state but I was probably just being cynical. It was hard to get any pictures with the lighting but we have some of the walk up to get to the cave entrance, a couple inside and some monkey pictures too! There were signs saying not to feed the monkeys and then people selling food with which to feed the monkeys. Talk about getting mixed messages! Oh that gold statue is the largest in the world of whatever god it depicts. I think they said it was 160 feet tall.

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More important here was the neighbouring Dark Caves. It is a research site and we couldn’t get any pictures but it was pitch black, covered in millions of bats and had a lot of tiny animals living in and on the guano (bat shit). Lots of weird cockroaches and tiny other insects. Some insects are only found in this cave, including the rarest spider in the world. There were plenty of other spiders in there though and they were really scary looking.
We crossed paths with a massive snake too. The snake eats the bats and uses the tour walkway as his own little road to easily get around the cave. He was wild and was not impressed that we were using ‘his’ road so we had to pass him very carefully.
Oh, there were a lot of pigeons on the roof of a cafe outside the cave.

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We shopped a little bit too, Kasey bought a skirt and we were about to both get a fish bath but when Kasey saw my facial expression when I stepped in she absolutely refused to try and got her money back. It was a weird sensation and VERY ticklish but I got used to it after a while and it was nice. Also, my feet felt really nice and soft for the next day.

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Next stop: Georgetown aka Penang. Georgetown is actually a heritage area within the island city of Penang. We had to cross the longest bridge ever to get to the island, it seemed to just go on and on for miles!
We had great intentions with Georgetown. We meant to go to a night market a little outside the city but ended up being too tired. We meant to go to monkey beach, which came complete with its own monkeys, but the 2 hour trek in 35+ degree heat (that’s 100 Fahrenheit to you imperialists) was too daunting. So we explored the immediate area and actually had a really good time doing just that.
Across the road was a great Indian restaurant, we ate there at least twice a day. The good places don’t have walls or doors, just pillars and crappy benches. The cockroaches and the mice in the restaurant and rats and the half dead kittens on the street didn’t turn us off (well maybe the rats did a little bit) and being ok with with all those things must mean we are really desensitised to the bad hygiene.
There was a 60ft tower (see picture) dedicated to queen Victoria, each foot of the tower symbolising a year of her reign. I looked at the tower and couldn’t see any feet, then asked the inevitably stupid question “where are the feet?”. Kasey thought it was very important to show my stupidity to everyone by including it in the blog.

!

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Oh in case anyone here somehow didn’t know – there is an election campaign ongoing in Malaysia. If you didn’t spot the first flag on each street corner the other 99 are sure to catch your attention.

Kasey got henna done on her arm and foot, it is an Indian thing usually done by a bridal party the night before a wedding. It is temporary tattoo using a type of paint. It lasts up to 4 weeks but with all the salt water and towel drying we put Kasey’s through, it hardly lasted a week. It looked very cool while it lasted though! All the Indian women commented on it (and the Thai ladyboys)!

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We went on to Thailand from here, a 12 hour journey complete with 3 ladyboys in the minivan! Exciting stuff to come!

Singapore

After Bali, we flew to Singapore. We really had no idea what to expect – all we knew was that it was ‘nothing like the rest of Asia’ and very, very clean. Honestly, I don’t have any distinct memories of it. Maybe I should have written this post sooner! I’ll just make a list.

1. The food was really good. We ate mostly at open air food courts, where each stall had a specialty. We tried all sorts of new things: chendol (shaved ice, palm sugar, milk, and green jelly stuff…not bad, but not really our taste), durian (the stinkiest fruit EVER), clay pot Chinese dishes (chicken stewed in different sauces in a clay pot), and biryani (an Indian dish with rice and spices and chicken, in our case. We tried it again in Malaysia and it was completely different!).

2. There were shopping centers everywhere! The neighborhood we were staying in slightly out of the main city center had a whole bunch, then we went to Orchard Road, just to see what it was like. I had been told by a friend that it is Singapore’s Times Square type area, very touristy and built up. And it was, but it was also worth seeing because I didn’t even think it was possible to fit so many shops in one area. It was insane! It was fun to people watch, and the extreme air conditioning was a welcome respite from the extreme heat and humidity outside.

3. The public transport is awesome. We took buses and trains everywhere for really reasonable prices.

4. While cleaner than a city that feels similar (New York or London, just on a smaller scale), it was not as dramatically clean as all the stereotypes! There were a lot more trees though, which was nice.

5. The airport (Changi Airport) is consistently rated one of the best in the world, and it did seem to be pretty incredible. Going through passport control was really entertaining though (now that we have enough patience to last a life time). We had to switch lines three times because they kept closing them just before we would reach the front…

6. Everyone dressed very well! Especially after being in so many places with lots of travellers wearing ridiculous haram pants (Google it) and threadbare tank tops, seeing all the business people in neat suits and high heels was a huge change.

7. Pictures!

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Bali

Bali was a convenient stop between Sydney and Singapore and it was supposed to be one of those luxury beach resorts so we decided to spend 5 days there. Flying there took 6 hours and 4 of those hours were just crossing Australia! Looking out the window, we were just commenting “desert…. More desert…. Oo a road!”. It’s an incredibly big country full of nothingness.
As we were dropping onto the runway we flew straight past the plane that had crashed and rolled into the sea a few days previously. That was a bit unnerving while we waited for the wheels to touch the ground!!
The first thing we noticed was the incredible heat. It is a heaviness that just lingers in the air and makes everything exhausting. Being close to the equator this time was a lot different than when we were in Ecuador since the higher altitude made it much cooler back then.
We stayed in the semi upscale area of the island so the street vendors weren’t quite as aggressive about peddling their stuff. They still shouted at us a lot though and every taxi driver we passed would say “transport?” with hand gestures to their car, and when told no, would always say “ok maybe tomorrow?”. It was funny being targeted for being white again after spending so long in New Zealand and Australia. Suddenly we were the ‘rich people’ again.
That said, most white people in the area were rich as all around us there were private resorts that looked gorgeous. Plebes like us couldn’t get in to look around since they all had security. That also made some of the restaurants in the area expensive so we had to be a little bit wary of prices before sitting down somewhere.
We want to try the local food as we go so it is convenient that it is all dirt cheap!
Bali is mostly Hindu, while the rest of Indonesia is mostly Muslim. Bali was a refuge for Hindus at some point to escape persecution (I remember reading this on Wikipedia I think, can’t remember the specifics but that is the basic outline). So a lot of the culture is very focused on Hinduism. Every day people have offerings on the street in front of their properties and there are lots of golden statues and weird massive hanging reed things that bow out over the streets like traffic lights. The pictures will explain it better.

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Bartering is a must, the sellers will always quote about double what you should pay so you have to start bargaining at 30% of their offer to get close to a fair trade! When they do end up dropping their price they always say “ok… For good luck!” As though their original price wasn’t ridiculous!

We stayed in a lovely hostel and got a private room with ensuite for about $30 a night! Over 5 nights that added up to about 1,500,000 rupiah, which sounded like a lot more! The ATMs struggled to even give us that much, since things are so comparatively cheap and that much money is not needed.
Pictures of the hostel, the pool was a great way to cool off. We heard the beach near us wasn’t sandy or nice so we just swam here.

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The one big activity we did was snorkelling. We took a day trip with a diving team to a shipwreck off of the north coast. It was a two hour drive away so it really was an all day event. The divers were all doing their divemaster training, with hopes of continuing onto diving careers, and one of them needed to guide a snorkelling group as part of his training. That fitted in nicely with our plans!

The wreck we were visiting was right beside the shore so we were able to walk in from the beach and swim out to it. It was referred to first as a ‘world war 2 wreck’ but later we heard the full story. It was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in world war 2 but it didn’t sink. It was left floating off the shore where it is now for a few years until the main volcano on the island erupted in 1950. The lava came down to the water and tipped the boat over on its side causing it to capsize! I think if I was a ship I’d like to go out in style like that.

There was a coral reef all along the shoreline so we were able to swim all around looking at millions of fish and corals and we were able to dive down to them (so long as we didnt touch anything! Anything you touch will die!).
Anyway, for any Finding Nemo fans out there, we saw Nemo and Dori and Bloat and Gil and probably other characters from the movie down there. There were some huge fish too and none were afraid of us, most were swimming around us looking for food. There were sharks too, the divers saw them but we missed them (not sure how to feel about that one). Oh and the shipwreck was pretty cool too, though our pictures don’t do it justice.
My camera came in handy once more. It takes worse quality pictures than Kasey’s but is near indestructible, making it great for these activities!
In case you are wondering who is in the pictures: our guide was Jason from Singapore and the other man without a wetsuit was Nigel, a very nice man from Guernsey (UK island between England and France).
The wetsuits helped with buoyancy so we didn’t get as tired – one of our sessions lasted an hour without touching the ground! Tiring stuff! They also helped in the morning as there were lots of little jellyfish in the water and it was impossible to avoid them, so only our exposed arms and legs (and Kasey’s face) got stung. The stings only lasted a minute and were more irritating than sore.
Why am I still typing – pictures!

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The final picture is a needlefish. He kept floating just below the surface (so we couldn’t see him unless we tilted our heads up) and following us. He was a little over a foot long (think Subway sandwiches haha) and really scary looking, it was uncomfortable to be around him!!

There were lots of other sights to see, like temples, but we decided a bit of well deserved R&R was more important 🙂 this travelling stuff is hard work! So I’ll just throw some more pics in to make it seem like we did more… That should work.
We ate a yellow watermelon, tasted exactly like a normal one. And we ate purple dragon fruit. And there was a little friendly lizard in our room – he wouldn’t let us get close enough for a clear picture. We also ate another fruit called manggis which we don’t have a picture of, but hopefully we will get more in Malaysia and Thailand since they are delicious.

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We are back to a South American style of driving – bumper to bumper at 60mph – except this time half the traffic is mopeds and motorbikes. We often saw little children sitting up on the handlebars while the parents whizzed between lanes of traffic, families of 4 on a single moped, and boys who couldn’t have been older than 13 riding around (the legal age is 17 though I doubt it is enforced).

Yes the hat is purple. This is why I should never make purchases without someone by my side!

Sydney

We were curious to see Sydney since many Kiwis kept telling us we should be going to Melbourne instead. It ended up being great! The weather was perfect – none of the crazy summer temperatures that were breaking records this year. We stayed a short bus ride away from the city center, so many people in the hostel were actually living there while on year long work visas. It made for an interesting atmosphere, a little more social than NZ had been, though that could have been a quirk of who was there at the time.

Anyway, we started by just wandering and then took a free walking tour (every big city should run those, they have consistently been some of the best ways to see lots of things on a budget, and it usually seems as though the tips make it pretty worthwhile for the guide).

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The sun was in our eyes.

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Rub the pig for luck!

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Sky Tower, although I’m not actually sure if it is called that. The top revolves once an hour! We were going to try the Prudential Tower trick – instead of paying to see the ‘Observation Level’, just have a drink on the bar level. Unfortunately, their bar had a dress code and we could not meet the level of expectation. It’s the only time our backpacks have failed us!

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These guys were everywhere! The walking guide said they are Sydney’s answer to squirrels.

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Cruise ships are huge! Also, they stock lots of beer (all those pallets on the right are kegs, cans, and bottles).

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We went to the Botanical Gardens and these guys were everywhere! They were so noisy and very entertaining. While in the gardens, Eoin decided to test out the boomerang we had just purchased. The included instructions weren’t that great. We now have a two-piece boomerang.

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Creepy spider! He had made a HUGE web stretching from a light post to some shrubs that were planted below.

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