Summer Round-Up: Weaving, Sugar and Libraries

Woo! It’s been a busy summer. (Yes, I still mentally divide the year into European/North American seasons even though I live on the equator.)

For those who don’t know, at the end of May I began writing weekly posts for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys. And because my boss is an awesome lady, she got us a partnership with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS), who have been featuring my pieces in the Ready to Travel section of their website and app. A few have also appeared on Tourego.

Since these pieces are all fairly short (hooray for the #TLDR era), I thought I’d put them together in a periodic round-up instead of giving them all individual posts here.

And so…

Behold! My stuff.

14. The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 1)

It’s easy to forget that the map of the globe wasn’t always the way it is today. Borders have been redrawn too many times to count. Populations were abruptly combined into states by colonizers. The names that locals gave to their lands sometimes stuck and were sometimes overwritten by a foreign nation’s interpretation…

13. WILD Eats

Organic produce and eating local might sound like modern trends but for the people of Sarawak in Borneo (Malaysia), it’s been a way of life for thousands of years thanks to the rich biodiversity of their 130 million year old rainforest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo is estimated to contain more than 15,000 plant species, over 5,000 of which are found nowhere else on the planet…

12. Crafty Curriculum: Weaving and Indigo Go to School

The StraitsJourneys team recently joined our Expert Lynelle Barrett and Leong Minyi, founder of Mai Textile Studio, in leading a workshop for children at the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. This was an exciting way for StraitsJourneys to give back to the community, and also a chance to teach local kids about traditional textiles…

11. A LOOK UPSTREAM

The Republic of Singapore turns 53 this year and as usual, the National Day fireworks will take place where the Singapore River empties into the bay. Much like the country itself, the river reflecting these lights has shapeshifted throughout the past century…

10. UNUSUAL FINDS IN LIBRARIES

Generally, when you visit a library, you know what to expect: books for borrowing. Some people may have been shocked when shelves of CDs and DVDs for rent began cropping up, but here are a few libraries with even stranger finds amongst the stacks…

9. OLD PATHS TO NEW PLACES

Hanoi, a city that’s been standing for over 1000 years, has been going through a recent development boom. But even as skyscrapers are springing up, the scene on the ground is still flush with cultural gems and hidden corners. The new is being woven into the old, forming a thrilling tapestry of streets lined with both ancient temples and trendy cafes…

Photo Copyright: Andrey Maslakov

8. The Bitter History of Sugar

Between the endless articles on how sugar shapes our bodies and the endless advice on how to consume less of it, it’s rarely mentioned that sugar has also heavily shaped the modern world. And much like the cavities and diseases our bodies are wracked with, this deceptively harmless sweetener’s impact on the world is markedly negative…

7. Electric Akihabara

The story of the Akihabara shopping district in Tokyo is essentially the story of every high school nerd in the 1980s. Shops here were the first to sell and celebrate home computers at a time when they were only used by specialists and hobbyists, and naturally, their indoorsy consumers were also big fans of anime…

6. Art by Humans, Art by Nature

For those looking to spend the summer immersed in beauty, Penang should be at the top of the list. Thanks to its 130 million year old rainforest and 5,000 years of human civilization, the island has a wealth of both natural and man-made art. In fact, the whole month of August is devoted to it….

5. A Year in Literature

There is a beautiful line in Jhumpa Lahiri’s international bestseller The Namesake that you’ve probably seen floating around the internet: “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” The exploration of unfamiliar lands can happen on the page or on a plane, and in some magical instances, both at the…

4. The Thread of History

Clothing has always straddled the line between art and function. Born out of necessity, methods of creating and wearing textiles have evolved to represent cultural values as well as individuality. With evidence of its existence dating back 27,000 years, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest activities. It is also one of the most universal…

3. The Multicultural Mosque

The end of Ramadan is fast approaching and there’s excitement in Singapore’s humid air. Hari Raya Puasa (also called Eid al-Fitr) is a holiday about generosity, charity and reflecting on one’s past actions. Since practicing Muslims conclude a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, it’s no surprise that food is also a huge component…

2. The Cultivated Elegance of Taiwanese Tea

When the phrase tea ceremony is mentioned, you likely think of Japan’s meticulous rituals or of Chinese wedding traditions. However, the lesser-known tea culture of Taiwan is no less captivating. “Tea is not merely a drink but an art form in Taiwan,” states Dave Lim, owner of Sun Ray Cafe in Singapore and…

1. Zoom into Angkor Wat

 As the largest religious monument in the world, the architecture of Angkor Wat is unquestionably impressive from a distance. The central temple stands at 213 meters tall. The entire complex spans 162.6 hectares. The city is comprised of more stone than all of Egypt’s pyramids combined. But equally impressive are the details…

Edinburgh: Artful & Approachable

I didn’t mean to turn my trip to Edinburgh into an article. It just sort of happened? Read all about it in the August issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

“Picturesque” is the ideal word for Edinburgh.

If the Gothic architecture and striking geography of Scotland’s capital aren’t enough to convince you, the homegrown arts scene should. Edinburgh is famous for its festivals, concerts and live acts. The annual Edinburgh International Festival features invitation-only performances in music, theater, opera and dance. However, the most well-known is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it’s the world’s largest arts festival. Unlike the International Festival, anyone can perform almost any type of act. Last year, there were over 50,000 performances in everything from children’s shows to spoken word to cabaret, though the Fringe is best known for its robust comedy segments.

Similar to Melbourne, Edinburgh is very walkable, and anything that isn’t in walking distance can be reached via a robust network of trams and buses (almost all of which have free Wifi). The general atmosphere is laidback. The people are warm. The food scene is flush with local produce and craft alcohol. Both metropolises have been named Cities of Literature by UNESCO and this year an exchange program was launched to facilitate networking between their robust literary scenes. Even on a casual walk through Edinburgh, you’ll encounter statues and monuments to literary greats such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

In addition to being a haven for writers, Edinburgh is wealthy with galleries and museums, many of which are free. I highly recommend the National Gallery for two reasons. One, it features spectacular work by Renaissance masters, including Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. And two, by studying paintings from hundreds of years ago, it’s possible to see just how little the cityscape has changed over the past millennium. Modern-day Princes Street, one of the main thoroughfares, is instantly recognizable in Alexander Nasmyth’s painting from 1825. This is partly due to regulations that limit the height of newer buildings and partly due to the city’s topography.

The multi-leveled nature of Edinburgh means there are several prime vantage points from which to gaze out over the sprawl. Calton Hill is worth the climb, but Edinburgh Castle, of course, takes the cake. The stone fortress watches over everything from its perch on the aptly-named Castle Rock, as it has done since the 12th century. Boasting just under 1000 years of history, it routinely tops the list of Edinburgh’s must-see sites. It has two spectacular approaches. You can stroll through the verdant Princes Street Gardens and then languidly take a path up a grassy slope that’s populated with daffodils in spring.

Or you can start at the bottom of Old Town and meander up the Royal Mile, which begins at Holyrood Palace and follows the medieval streets directly to the castle gates. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops and detours, as this route passes St. Giles’ Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish Parliament, the University of Edinburgh as well as a plethora of notable restaurants and pubs. There are also numerous secret passages and small, winding stone alleys to explore. Some of them you may already be familiar with, as parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.

Like I said: picturesque.

 

Singapore American logo

Cheap Tricks: A Case Study

In the March issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, I reveal all (well, most) of my tricks for finding deals on flights and accommodation.   

Oh the Skies You'll Fly

Let’s say you’ve been invited to a wedding in Newburyport, Massachusetts. You’re past the congratulatory Skype call and now have to book flights and accommodation. Thankfully, you have a strategy and sit down at your computer with confidence. Being the savvy traveler you are, you know your web browsers track cookies and that booking websites might nudge up the price if you take your time. To get around this, you open a new window in incognito mode. In Google Chrome and Safari, this is enabled by hitting Control (Command for Mac users) + Shift + N. In Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, you hit Control (or Command) + Shift + P.

The wedding is Saturday June 16, so you decide to depart Singapore on Tuesday June 12 or Wednesday June 13 and to return on Tuesday June 19 or Wednesday June 20, because you know Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the cheapest days of the week to fly. Google tells you the airport nearest to your destination is Boston Logan International, but you note that Manchester-Boston Regional as well as airports in New York and New Jersey are also feasible.

Time to search. You open six tabs in your incognito browser window: Kayak, Skyscanner, Kiwi, Expedia, Google Flights, and Momondo. If you were flying to a country within Southeast Asia, you would also check the websites of the regional budget airlines since these are often not indexed by the search engines. After inputting your dates and destination, you compare the results. Kiwi and Google Flights both indicate that in this case, departing Singapore on Monday June 11 is less expensive than Tuesday or Wednesday, and so you adjust your search parameters. In descending order, in SGD, the fare for a single traveler in Economy comes out to be:

  • $1410 on Kayak
  • $1315 on Expedia
  • $1238 on Kiwi
  • $1220 on Momondo
  • $1139 on Google Flights
  • $1018 on Skyscanner

You realize that the cheapest flight has two layovers and the total travel time to Boston is 42 hours. This doesn’t bother you, so you snap up the Skyscanner deal. Or you’re a human being and you fine-tune your filters to search for journeys with one layover and a travel time of 27 hours max. All the search engines now quote around $1430, with two exceptions. Kiwi’s estimating $1550, so you close that tab, and your heart skips happily that Google Flights’ quote remains at $1139.

You’re itching to snap up those tickets. But you take a deep breath and examine the details. The layover is a measly 2 hours but since both legs of the journey are operated by the same carrier and since you’ll be in London Gatwick, a small airport, that should be enough time to make your connection, despite traveling during the busy summer season.

And there’s one more angle to consider. Your hotel in Newburyport will cost about $150 SGD per night, $1200 for your entire stay, which means the total price of your trip would tally up to $2339. You check whether Kayak, Expedia or Momondo have package deals that can beat that. Momondo’s best offer is $2656 and Expedia’s is $2378, but lo and behold Kayak quotes you a package at $2013.

You again wisely counsel yourself to be patient and check the fine print. Sure enough, some tweaks have been made to your parameters. You would be leaving on Sunday June 10 and your hotel is in Boston, a 45-minute drive outside of Newburyport. You decide that’s a compromise you can live with, carefully reread all the details of your booking before paying, and then muse at the irony. The website that initially seemed like the worst deal wound up being the best.

BONUS TIPS!

Here are a few more resources, exclusive for my online readers.

I book trips to other countries once every other month, on average, and Secret Flying has some of the best deals I’ve ever seen. They track down short-term promotions and error fairs on airlines. At the time of writing, they’ve unearthed a deal that would let you fly from New York to Cambodia for just $470 USD roundtripTravel Pirates is a similar resource, though it focuses more on package deals and trips based out of the United States. Six nights in the Hawai’i Hilton plus roundtrip flights from Los Angeles for $890 USD, anyone?

What I like about Secret Flying and Travel Pirates is that they both give very clear instructions on on how to get the discount prices. You’re not surprised by fees or confused by the process, which is refreshing. If you’re flexible when it comes to timing and/or destination, you can find some amazing trip deals.

Lastly is a site for maximizing your layovers: Air Wander. My family lives 16-22 hours flight time from where I live and those long-haul journeys can be exhausting to tackle in one sitting. Enter Air Wander, which lets you pop in your dates, departure and destination, and the number of days you’d like to spend on a layover, and then searches for available options. You can even add more than one stopover or specify which cardinal direction you’d like to fly in.

Say I’m flying Singapore to Ireland on June 1st and can spare two days for a layover. Air Wander tells me that a stopover in Amsterdam will save me the most money, but lists all possible options and how much extra it would cost to stop there (Madrid’s only $8 USD). Turns out, I can fly one-way from Singapore to Amsterdam to Dublin for $430 USD. This isn’t necessarily cheaper than searching through Kayak or Kiwi, but it’s much more convenient than typing out all your multi-city parameters and I love having the ability to compare all possible long layovers without having to do repeated searches.

Happy Travels!

Singapore American logo

Wanderlusters, Get Excited!

Appearing in the Jan. issue of the Singapore American Newspaper is my first piece of 2018!  

Vang Vieng, Laos

This is a fantastic year for long weekends, as almost all days off fall at the beginning or the end of the work week. In an homage to FOMO, below are some strategies for maximizing your free time.

Chinese New Year (Fri & Sat, Feb 16–17)

Our only 2-day holiday must be considered carefully. Those celebrating will be flying home to see family, which means, ironically, this is not the best time to visit China, nor countries with large Chinese descendent populations, such as Vietnam. Those not celebrating will be flocking in droves to Thai beaches and Cambodian temples, so skip those as well. Instead, make the most of our longest holiday by going further afield. For winter activities, Japan and Nepal are excellent for skiing and trekking respectively. If you’re craving sunshine, New Zealand and Australia will be in the middle of summer. As with Christmas in the West, the cost of flights and hotels shoot up during CNY, so plan ahead and book early.

Good Friday (Fri March 30)

Missing spring? Avoid the crowds and extravagant prices of Japan in cherry blossom season, by viewing the flowers in the Korean cities of Busan, Daegu and Jeju Island, which hosts an annual carnival. This is also the time to hit those temples in Cambodia. And if you don’t mind heat and humidity, Laos makes for a quiet getaway as it’s low-season for tourists.

Labour Day (Tues May 1)

Fall in New Zealand is a superb time to visit as the summer crowds will have left, the prices of attractions drop and the scenery is beautiful. For history buffs, Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day with processions and decorations on April 30. The more adventurous can fly to Pentecost Island, Vanuatu for the Naghol Land Diving Festival, where local men perform ritual bungee jumps using vines alone.

Vesak Day (Tues May 29)

This important day for Buddhists is celebrated in a variety of ways. Sri Lanka’s cities erect electrically-lit floats. Seoul hosts festivals and parades. Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia is glorious, as thousands of monks gather to chant while circling the temple. This is not a great occasion to visit most cities in India, as temperatures hover at 90°F plus. Keep cool at the annual Koh Samui Regatta in Thailand, which runs from May 26 to Jun 1.

Hari Raya Puasa / Eid al-Fitr (Fri June 15)

Marking the end of Ramadan fasting, Hari Raya Puasa brings festivities and closed businesses in Malaysia and Indonesia. While the atmosphere will undoubtedly be jubilant, note that many tourist destinations in Muslim countries may not be open during the holiday. In China, high-energy Dragon Boat Festivals will be happening from Beijing to Nanjing on June 18.

National Day (Thurs Aug 9)

This is high season on Vietnam’s coasts, where hotels are up to 50% more expensive, so travel inland to Hội An, Nha Trang and Huế, or book a junkboat to explore Hanoi’s dramatic Hạ Long Bay. Only an hour away by plane, George Town in Penang devotes the entire month to arts, culture and heritage. Make it a Malaysia tour by swinging down to Kuala Lumpur and then Malacca, where the weather will be dry and pleasant. It’s full-on monsoon season in India and South Korea, however, so give them a miss.

Hari Raya Haji / Eid-ul-Adha (Wed Aug 22)

A time for feasting with family and spiritual reflection, Hari Raya Haji is less rowdy than Puasa, so less compelling for visitors. Domestic travel, particularly buses and trains, within Malaysia and Indonesia will be packed. Around this time, the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival kicks off in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Among last year’s speakers were Markus Zusak, Padma Lakshmi and even the Queen of Bhutan herself.

Deepavali (Tues Nov 6)

Brave the crowds and head to India, which is a magical place during the Festival of Lights, especially Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Weather-wise, this is also an ideal time for mountain treks in Nepal, strolls through Shanghai, or viewing autumn foliage in Japan. For trips easier on the wallet, head to Penang or Taipei, two destinations known for amazing street food, with hiking, shopping and historic sites all in easy reach. Hong Kong also boasts pleasant temperatures at this time of year.

Christmas Day (Tues Dec 25)

If you want Christmas spirit but aren’t looking to make a pilgrimage to Europe or the Americas, check out the Philippines. Manila and Cebu will be decked out in lights, and seasonal festivities are not to be missed in the provinces of Pampanga and Cavite. The cooler weather in Bangkok and Chiang Mai means Thailand is another good option. Or treat yourselves to an excursion to the Maldives. While prices are higher at Christmas, diving and snorkeling are incomparable as visibility is excellent during the dry season.

Singapore American logo

Marvelous Melbourne

What sets Australia’s cultural capital apart from other food-obsessed cities? Find out in my piece for the latest issue of the Singapore American Newspaper: Marvelous Melbourne! 

If you’re from Boston or Chicago, Melbourne may feel familiar. Universities divide the streets among them. Historical structures are a natural part of the cityscape. Eschewing a single heart, the cities separate into a family of neighborhoods, each with its own twist on a fun night out and on the best meal in town. Melbourne’s character as a whole is laidback, artsy and friendly. Dogs greet strangers with wagging tails. Bartenders and waiters offer ready jokes and recommendations. Sports are taken seriously but don’t reach blood feud levels. The crowds that fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground are often the same ones to descend on the National Gallery.

The CBD is busy during the week but it lacks the frantic bustle of New York City or Singapore. After a few minutes of walking, the small cluster of skyscrapers melts into two-story buildings and old brick workers’ cottages re-appropriated into shops, restaurants, bars and of course, Melbourne’s famous coffee shops. Though second to Sydney in size, Melbourne is often considered Australia’s cultural capital and a stroll through the streets will illuminate why. Painted murals climb walls. Live music spills out of cafés. Poetry readings draw crowds to bookstores. The city boasts over a hundred galleries, the most resplendent being the National Gallery of Victoria. Architecture is quite European in style, with the grander landmarks dating back to Victorian times. Even small residences sport trimmings of vintage iron filigree. But Melbourne’s most well-known expression of creativity has to be its food scene. As a local friend commented, “It is difficult to get a bad cup of coffee here.”

Many cities are food-obsessed, but what sets Melbourne apart is its access to fresh, cheap produce. The majority of food and beverages are locally grown and high quality, from a modest sausage roll with a beer to elevated gourmet cuisine with a cocktail. International chain restaurants have a very minor presence. There are two large urban farms less than 5km from the city center, as well as 20 government-funded gardens on public housing estates. But the commitment to progressive, eco-friendly food preparation isn’t limited to restaurants and large ventures. With eight bustling fresh food markets and over 300 community gardens, the average city dweller can afford an organic lifestyle. I even strolled past a house with lemons and pomegranates growing around the entryway.

While there aren’t as many raw attractions and there isn’t as much for kids here as in Sydney, Melbourne is a veritable paradise for the indie crowd: architectural history buffs, coffee aficionados, musicians and artists. It’s also a very walkable city. Beginning with the grouping of the National Gallery, Arts Centre and Hamer Hall, stroll across the Yarra River to gaze up at the historic Flinders Street Railway Station. Weave through Chinatown to get to the majestic National Library and explore the cluster of bookshops in the area. Continue east for a peek at the art deco style Her Majesty’s Theatre and then the iconic 1850s Princess Theatre, before admiring the stately Parliament House and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Northwards lies the Royal Exhibition Building surrounded by landscape gardens that possums bounce through after sundown. A few blocks west will take you to the trendy, quirky shops of Grattan Street, which is intersected by Lygon Street with its wealth of warm, lively restaurants and the famous Readings Carlton bookstore. Then, when your feet get tired and your mind is whirling, the dinging trams will carry you back to city center. That is, if you can resist stopping in to eat in every joint along the way.

Singapore American logo

Buying Books in Singapore

For the Sept 2017 issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, which is all about shopping, I got to ramble on about one of my favourite hobbies: buying books! 

Physical books are basically the best thing on the planet. Unfortunately, when you move between countries on said planet, your library can get awfully heavy (and costly) to take with you. Although it’s easy enough to fill your shelves in Singapore should you miss the crates of books you left in storage, even the most casual bibliophile will notice that prices here are higher than in the US. Don’t despair just yet! Researching your options will save you money and get you inhaling that delicious book smell in no time.

The Big Guys

Singapore’s largest bookstore is Japanese chain Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City, with smaller branches elsewhere in the country. Though Kinokuniya’s Japanese section is expectedly robust, it is far from the only offering, as the store has expansive fiction and non-fiction sections, everything from old classics to new bestsellers to cookbooks to graphic novels to magazines to travel guides. The prices – especially for new or hardback books – make me wince, but the selection is hard to beat. MPH, Times and POPULAR are other bookstore chains that can be found in multiple locations across the island. Keep an eye out for their sales, as you can often find some steals.

The Indie Bookstores

I’m a huge advocate of supporting independently-owned bookstores and since prices in Singapore are expensive anyway, I might as well put my money towards these community lynchpins. Manned by three indifferent cats and some passionate people, BooksActually in Tiong Bahru is a hub of the Singapore literature scene that features a variety of literary events, including readings by local writers. Just down the street is the adorable Woods in the Books, which specializes in thoughtfully-curated young children’s books. Taking up two stories in a cozy shophouse on Duxton Hill, Littered with Books has the personal air of a librarian’s home. The staff are happy to give you recommendations, but will also let you browse undisturbed for hours. Bliss.

Secondhand Books

For those more focused on content than presentation or those excited to spend an hour digging through piles of titles, pre-loved books are the way to go. Singapore isn’t big on secondhand items, but there are three well-established used bookstores that will serve you well, both in price and selection: Ana Bookstore in Far East Plaza, Book Treasure in Parklane Shopping Mall and Evernew Bookstore, which spills out of Bras Basah Complex onto the street. Happy hunting!

Specialty Bookstores

Sometimes your love of a subject goes deeper than what can be found on the average bookseller’s shelves. Also in Bras Basah Complex, Basheer Graphic Books’ astounding selection of books and magazines makes it a mecca for anyone fascinated by design in any iteration, whether it’s architecture, fashion, animation, typography – you name it. For those who don’t mess around in their love of the printed word, there’s GOHD Books on Bencoolen Street. Specializing in rare tomes and first editions (some from as far back as 1595), their stock isn’t cheap but it will make any book collector salivate. If you’re captivated by the continent we live on, look no further than Select Books, whose archive of publications on Asia is so wide, they supply resources to universities, researchers, libraries and governments (including the US Library of Congress). If their retail store in Toa Payoh is out of your way, you can also order from them online.

The Internet

The Internet, of course, is the most convenient source of books. However, don’t think Amazon is your only option, especially now that their Southeast Asia launch has been pushed back. Shipping costs hike the price up and although used books from third-party sellers on Amazon can be wildly discounted, you’ll find that many won’t ship internationally.

Your golden ticket is Book Depository. Though books often appear more expensive than Amazon at first glance, once shipping costs are added, you’ll find Book Depository to be cheaper as they offer free shipping to anywhere in the world. They also don’t require you to create an account to make a purchase. No store’s selection of books can beat Amazon’s, but Book Depository does come close. If you want faster delivery times, OpenTrolley is a Singapore-based online bookseller with prices comparable to local brick-and-mortar stores.

For the bibliophile who wants to support their reading addiction and support others simultaneously, Better World Books not only has free shipping worldwide and an enormous assortment of new and used books, but also donates a book to someone in need for every book purchased. As of today, they’ve donated over 23 million books and raised over $25 million dollars for literacy programs, including the non-profit Room to Read. Thanks to them, you can feel good about restocking your library, no matter where on the planet you find yourself.

Singapore American logo

Learning to Listen: Traveling to Nepal’s Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu to spend time with yourself

In their November 2016 issue, Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine published my piece on the beautiful Kopan Monastery:

There is no shortage of yoga poses that require practise and concentration to get right (crow, handstand scorpion, frog), but rarely do we think of savasana as one of them. Much looked forward to after a tough class, we often sink into savasana the way we settle in for a nap, and while corpse pose is a time of rest for the body, it is also intended to be a time of meditation. But meditation doesn’t have to mean the difficult task of totally emptying your mind. Just as there are various forms of triangle pose, there are several approaches to savasana and meditation as well.

Trish O’Gorman, a yoga teacher who has taught Kundalini in the United States for over a decade, decided to deepen her meditative practise by taking part in the 6-day “Open Heart, Clear Mind” course at Kopan Monastery in Nepal this past summer. Taught by Ven. Kabir and David Marks, the course was aimed at beginners and offered, as stated on the website, “guidance and meditations on the essential teachings of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the different ways to develop the mind so as to find balance, clarity and inner peace.”

I’ll admit that the idea of a meditation course sounded like an oxymoron. Wasn’t the point of meditation to do…nothing? I joined Trish early on her final day of the course to learn more, but I would have to wait to hear her thoughts on the experience. The participants, who were mainly from Europe or the Americas, had vowed to remain silent for the entire length of the course excepting discussion group and Q&A sessions. Nevertheless, she confided later, she and some of her classmates had taken several excursions to a nearby coffee shop to chat.

Located on a hilltop on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery is lively. Built in 1971, it is a monastery in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition and home to over 300 monks, lamas, teachers and workers. Visitors are welcome to stay for as little as an hour or as long as several months. As Kopan is also a small school, monks of all ages can be found chanting, meditating and debating philosophy. On clear days, lush mountain ranges emerge from the clouds, revealing green valleys below. A cadre of lazy, friendly dogs roam the picturesque grounds, which include a meditation hall, gardens, a library and dorm-like accommodations.

The day’s itinerary was simple and straightforward, and began with a meditation session before breakfast. The silence I had expected, but this was my first experience with a guided meditation, where a teacher gently urges you to contemplate certain subjects/questions and to envision images, such as the Buddha on a lotus or light filling your body. Guided meditation, also called analytical meditation, is one of the more accessible forms of calming the mind, as it is a more familiar method of structuring and managing your thoughts. While Kopan also coaches on the differences between and strategies to practise silent and structured (chanting) meditation, analytical meditation was the most common during this course. I felt this would be helpful next time I entered savasana at the end of yoga class; instead of the usual struggle to completely empty my mind of thoughts, I could instead select a prompt (like a quote from a spiritual text or a question about how to live with wisdom) and concentrate on contemplating it deeply.

Upon the completion of the meditation session, the participants were released from their silence. Breakfast was boisterous in spite of the spare, plain food provided by the monastery (all vegan, of course). It was clear that Trish and many of the other participants had developed strong friendships over the week.

While teenaged monks in gangs loudly debated Buddhist philosophy in the courtyard, we returned to the beautiful meditation hall for a dharma talk led by Ven. Kabir. Unsurprisingly, for the participants’ final talk, the focus was on how to carry the lessons of the monastery with them and continue following the path after leaving Kopan Hill. Not a rigid lecturer, Kabir welcomed questions and quoted Thoreau and Pablo Neruda along with the Dalai Llama. He highlighted how the modern world challenges our ability to remain in touch with ourselves, and spent some time illustrating how practicing Buddhism is ultimately reliant on self-confidence and on working intelligently with ourselves. What resonated most strongly with me was the discussion on how meditation was essential to reconnecting with our inner selves in a world that constantly tries to pull us out of ourselves by engaging and often overwhelming our senses – touchscreens, headphones, visual media, instant alerts, foods engineered to be addicting. Meditation, like yoga, is all about coming back to the breath and being in the moment.

According to Trish, throughout the course, the dharma talks and guided meditations were quite Buddhist, which could be a guide or a detour, depending on your spiritual or religious preferences. For the first two days, Trish felt at philosophical odds with the monastery and even considered leaving. She wanted less focus on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist doctrines and more exploration of the personal approaches and benefits to meditation. But then things started coming together, she said, particularly in the discussion groups. It all came down to motivation and intention, and how to direct one’s energy towards leading a life of kindness, compassion and wisdom.

Though the remainder of the final lecture centred around Buddhism’s Six Perfections, the lessons were universal and vital: how patience is a balm for anger, how to be generous to ourselves in body and mind, how we set up barriers between ourselves and others. Dharma is about investigating the self, learning to approach not only yoga but our daily lives with mindfulness, and about taking responsibility for our own happiness and our own suffering. Yoga and elements of its underlying philosophy were referred to often, such as karma and samadhi, which you may have heard in passing in a class but which the teacher likely didn’t have time to explain in depth.

Afterwards, lunch was provided and with it, the 6-day course came to a close. Had this been one of the earlier days, lunch would have been followed by two hours of free time and then four 1-hour discussion groups focused on different topics provided by the course leaders.

When asked how she had found the course beneficial, Trish noted that for her, much of the course reinforced what she already knew and practised, specifically the power of adding structure to personal meditation:

“Kundalini is one of the few forms of yoga that regularly incorporates meditation and chanting, but for the other forms of yoga, the monastery’s practises and guidance could be very helpful, especially as the entire point of yoga is to prepare the body for meditation. Doing yoga without meditation is like baking a delicious cake but not bothering with the frosting.”

When we talk about taking higher level yoga classes, we usually think about more challenging arm balances and deeper backbends, so why not take your savasana to the next level as well? Next time you lay your hardworking body onto the mat for its rest, practise guiding your thoughts to contemplate a concept like compassion or a question about the nature of your own consciousness. You may be surprised by how far you can travel through your own depths.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Published on February 1, 2017 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If living in Singapore has made you pine for cold weather, but you don’t miss the slushy morning commutes or the heating bills, then book a trip to the winter wonderland that is the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), which is held every February. Located in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Sapporo has a long, rich relationship with winter, even hosting the Olympic Games in 1972. With carved snow and ice sculptures of all sizes, real igloos you can explore, professional skiers showing off their jumps, and ramen and hot drink vendors to warm you up, this festival is exciting no matter what age you are.

One high point for us was the International Snow Sculpture Contest. A tradition since 1974, the competition is an opportunity to watch live as dozens of countries create mindboggling works of art that put my childhood snowmen to shame. Though it wasn’t surprising to see the USA represented, can you believe Thailand, Malaysia and even Singapore have teams?

A treat during the day, the festival is mesmerizing at night, when the enormous snow sculptures are illuminated by music and light shows. Many of the snow monuments are sponsored by companies and major brands – last year featured snow reproductions of tourist sites in Macau and Taiwan, tributes to internationally recognized anime shows Dragonball Z and Attack on Titan, and a snow bullet train to celebrate the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen. However, the festival also remains true to its humble roots and features hundreds of smaller, homemade sculptures created by the citizens of Sapporo. The food corners also rely heavily on local products and dishes, including exquisite seafood, hearty stews, and sake.

The first Sapporo Snow Festival was held in 1950 and featured only six snow statues made by local high school students. Beyond all expectations, the festival attracted about fifty thousand people and soon became one of the city’s major annual events. Less than ten years later, over 2500 people participated in creating snow sculptures. In 1965 and 1983, the festival grounds expanded, adding two subsidiary sites to the original Odori Park location in order to accommodate events such as an ice rink, a snow rafting zone, a PARK AIR Jumping Platform for skiers and snowboarders to demonstrate their tricks, snow slides, snow mazes, several food pavilions, and of course, even more snow and ice sculptures.

In addition to the seemingly endless sights and events of the festival, the city of Sapporo is also worth exploring for itself. Visits to the Sapporo Beer Museum and the top of the JR Tower were a pleasure. And Sapporo is an ideal jumping off point for anyone desperate to hit the ski slopes, as the world-famous powder of Niseko is less than two hours away. Best of all, when you’ve had your fill of winter fun, you can skip the part where everything melts and the snow turns brown and you get Seasonal Affective Disorder by returning to Singapore’s tropical heat, which I guarantee you will have a new appreciation for.

Singapore American logo

Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

Published on January 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With Singapore being so small and the surrounding region being so rich with culture and beauty, it would be a shame not to travel as often as possible. There are what seems like a million websites and apps out there to help with everything from packing to pinpointing the ideal snack joint, but here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful over the last three years.

If you’re looking for flights:

Southeast Asia is a hive of budget airlines that compete with each other, which means plenty of cheap offers every week. Sign up for emails from TigerAir, Jetstar, Scoot, and AirAsia to get access to flash sales. Even Groupon has some great offers. Websites like Skyscanner and Kayak are also ideal for comparing cheap flights, while sites like Zuji go further and offer hotels, car rentals and entire holidays.

If you’re looking for hotels:

Booking.com is always my go to due to their free cancellation policy.

If you’re not sure about visas:

The State Department’s SmartTraveler app lays out everything you need to know about passport requirements, visas, entry and exit fees, locations of American embassies, local laws to take note of, tips on staying safe, and any other restrictions or requirements you can expect to encounter.

If you want someone else to do all the work:

It’s a lot of fun planning out a personalized itinerary for a new destination, but it does take time and research to pin down all the details. Companies like Eco Adventures provide everything from English speaking guides to hotels to internal flights, while making your trip as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible.

If you want the inside scoop:

Each article on WikiTravel is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know before you go and when you’re there. It’s easy to navigate due to clearly marked sections like “Get In” and “Eat”, and it’s one of the more reliable sources of information about ATMs, local scams, what prices to expect and how to avoid being disrespectful. TripAdvisor’s website and app have also proved invaluable for finding hidden gems, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to affordable nail salons.

If you’re looking to get around:

Uber has proven a lifesaver multiple times in multiple countries, from the United States to Vietnam. Since the Uber app is already hooked up to your credit card, you don’t need to worry if you’re stranded somewhere without cash. And since the driver will have you and your desired destination located on GPS, you don’t need to worry about giving him directions or language issues.

If you’re looking to just explore:

Google Maps is hard to beat. Look up your destination and save the map so you can access it even offline. If your phone has linked with the local phone network, the satellites will also be able to place you on Google Maps.

If you’re hungry:

TripAdvisor and Yelp are probably the most universally reliable, though sometimes digging through the piles of reviews can be exhausting. Usually I just recommend following your nose and taking a chance on a place that looks good. Long lines of people waiting to eat are also a good sign.

If you want a crazy adventure:

Koryo Tours are the people who got us in and around North Korea, but if that’s a bit too crazy a destination for you, they also offer adventures to remote parts of Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia.

If you’re in an emergency:

Hopefully you have travel insurance. I personally recommend ACE Travel Insurance. They found me a clinic up to international standards when I contracted salmonella poisoning in Myanmar. If you’re already in the thick of things, the Travel Safe app is a directory of police, fire and medical services around the world.

Singapore American logo

 

Living and Giving as an Expat in Nepal

Published on November 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

We’ve all seen the photos: the streets of Kathmandu flooded with rubble, the Nepalese families picking through the remains of their collapsed homes, the piles of bricks where Durbar Square used to be. But since the two earthquakes in April, which left over 8,700 dead and apparently shifted Mount Everest by three centimeters, Nepal has been steadily rebuilding.

A United Methodist Pastor in the Detroit Conference who has lived in Nepal for the past few years, Rev. Dr. Jan L. Beaderstadt has been actively involved in the disaster recovery and has been working with Renaissance Outreach Ministries to raise aid money for those living in the mountains, which were some of the hardest hit areas. He recently traveled to Tinmane Village in the Gorkha District to distribute tents to families who lost their homes.

“I am impressed with the attitude of the people,” he commented in an interview. “They have pulled together to help each other. There has been very little in the way of looting. Even though the government has been slow in getting aid to the people who need it, the people haven’t resorted to violence like they would have in other developing countries. Nepalis are patient people.”

If you’ve been wondering how you could best support Nepal’s efforts to reconstruct, the answer is fairly straightforward according to Dr. Beaderstadt: book a trip. Half a million people in Nepal work in tourism and it’s a crucial pillar of the impoverished nation’s economy. While aid is helpful, tourist dollars are a much-needed source of funds to keep the nations on a steady path to recovery. If you’re worried about safety, know that the has lifted travel warnings for most areas. The photos, though dramatic, are hardly the whole story. Most of the country was unaffected by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with only 14 out of 75 districts suffering damage. Almost all national parks and protected areas, including UNESCO heritage sites and popular trekking destinations.

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Walking around Kathmandu with Dr. Beaderstadt was like being escorted by the mayor. Every few minutes he called out jovial greetings and shook hands with those he knew, from trishaw drivers to shop owners.

“You never run out of new thing to try in Kathmandu,” he declared before leading us into a restaurant posted with a sign that read ‘Probably the Best Pizza in Town.’ Inside, he immediately launched into a long conversation with the head waiter, apparently an old friend. We had met Dr. Beaderstadt a few days earlier in Nagarkot, just after my husband and I had trekked 18 kilometers through the mountainous Nepalese countryside, a section of the Kathmandu valley that the earthquakes devastated.

He mused that the earthquakes may prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the disaster has given people of all castes and religions something to rally around. In addition to long held social and ethnic hierarchies, the recent transition from monarchy to democracy has not been an easy one. The king relinquished sovereign power in 2006 and although elections were carried out relatively peacefully, quagmire-inducing political tensions and power struggles continue. Regardless, “for the most part, life goes on even when government is almost non-functioning at times. The people here demonstrate that they can function as a highly civilized society even if the country [has taken nearly a decade to draft] a constitution.”

While many expats hold themselves separate from the communities they reside in, since leaving American soil in 1998 Dr. Beaderstadt has enmeshed himself wholeheartedly in every new environment. While running a Bible School in Bangladesh and making frequent visits to Kathmandu, he was approached by his current partner, Kul Bahadur Gurung of Alliance Treks & Expeditions. Together they co-founded the Be-Kul Language Training Center to conduct leadership, management and English language training for local businesses. Though Dr. Beaderstadt noted that dealing with bureaucracy, particularly navigating the expectation of bribes, was one of the greatest challenges of living in Nepal.

“The people are wonderful, although lousy time managers,” he said. “Everything gets done by ‘tomorrow’ but tomorrow never seems to come. We often have severe power cuts that can last up to 11 hours a day. You often don’t have water on demand. But you get used to it, learn to plan ahead (they publish a daily power outage schedule) and learn to take life a bit easier.”

In spite of the unpredictable availability of amenities and the impending task of reconstruction, Dr. Beaderstadt has no plans to leave Nepal any time soon and is anticipating the arrival of his wife after she retires in a few years.
“Those living here get a chance to really immerse themselves in the local culture and make some really good friends. It is a relaxed atmosphere. I love it here.”

Singapore American logo

 

The Rich World of Kyoto

Published on August 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

When you live surrounded by the glossy newness of Singapore’s infrastructure, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dignity of Kyoto’s several thousand years of architecture. Formerly the imperial capital of Japan, this city is a bastion of the nation’s culture and is rife with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My husband, however, couldn’t get over the fact that progress seemed to have halted in the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic bubble collapsed And yet the trains still run perfectly, the buildings are old but not decrepit, and the analog ticket machines work without a hitch. If your impression of Japan was formed by sushi restaurants, anime, and the somber economic statistics, a visit to Kyoto will reveal a nation of more depth and breadth than you can imagine. This is a country that knows itself, that treasures its multilayered identity, and is content to move at its own pace.

Kyoto is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, big and small, and you can spend weeks going from one to another. Instead of hitting sites at random, I suggest doing research beforehand to hone in on the temples and shrines you really want to see, and then plan a route accordingly. My top three are as follows:

    1)    Fushimi Inari Taisha. You’ll want to set aside at least half a day to wander dreamily through the endless corridors of red-orange torii gates trailing up the mountain.

    2)    Heian Jingu. The vivid shrine buildings are reason enough to visit but it’s the stunning traditional gardens (which took 20 years for gardener Jihei Ogawa to perfect) that elevate this expansive site to magical.

    3)    Kinkaku-ji. Probably the most well-known temple in Kyoto, this is a popular site well worth the crowds. It doesn’t matter when you go, as every season renders the gold temple picturesque for different reasons.

Other temples and shrines I recommend are: Ginkaku-ji for its lush moss gardens, Kiyomizu-dera for the views of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji for its bouquet of sub-temples and historic Zen gardens, and Yasaka Shrine for a night walk. Though of course, there are thousands more.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

Since it is possible to overdose on temples, take advantage of your time in Kyoto to experience some of Japan’s traditional arts. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon just strolling along the preserved streets of Gion, the country’s most famous geisha district. While genuine geiko (the local term for geisha) and maiko (geisha in training) can be spotted in the evenings, you’re more likely to see women in colorful kimono during the daytime. Many of these are tourists who have dressed up for the day. If you’re eager to join them, there are a number of shops that will rent you an entire outfit, from the socks and shoes to the elaborate hairpins. The geiko and maiko still visit and entertain at the teahouses dotting Gion, and during cherry blossom season they give an annual dance performance called Miyako Odori (literally “Dances of the Old Capitol”), which we were lucky enough to catch. If you’re in town during the month of April, it would be a shame to miss. Gion is also the perfect place to buy high quality souvenirs, such as handmade pottery, paper fans, goods crafted from kimono style fabrics, lacquer ware, origami paper, green tea leaves, matcha powder, and more. While a formal Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours, a cozy teahouse just off the main stretch of Gion called En offers visitors a taste of the elaborate rituals. With explanations in English and the opportunity to try whisking green tea powder ourselves, it was an informative yet calming experience for everyone.

Kyoto’s geographic location and Japan’s comprehensive train system make it easy to incorporate several day trips into any itinerary. Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji are all less than an hour on the JR Line and each offers something different: delicious food and energetic nightlife in Osaka, a sprawling park overrun with friendly deer in Nara, the famous beef in Kobe, and the brilliant white, immense 680-year-old castle that is the centerpiece of Himeji. Before your trip, you can purchase a JR Rail Pass for the Kansai region, which will allow you to move between these cities with ease.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Of all the day trips we took, Arashiyama stands out. A mountainous district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Arashiyama is known for its scenic beauty and restful atmosphere. The shallow, slow-flowing Ōi River is peppered with small boats full of day trippers. Paths into the leafy hills lead you to such gems as Matsunoo Taisha, one of the oldest shrines in the Kyoto area, as well as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, the ethereal bamboo forest, and a stone engraved with four poems written by Zhou Enlai, who was inspired during his visit to Arashiyama. After a long day of strolling along the river and basking in the gorgeous surroundings, a soak in one of the many onsen (hot springs) was heaven.

Once known for being a challenge for non-Japanese speaking visitors, Japan has gone to great lengths to make navigating its streets less scary. Buses and trains announce stops and tourist attractions in English. Station names and signs directing you to nearby sites have all been translated. The majority of restaurants we ate in had an English menu on hand. However, it’s the Japanese people that make Japan a genuine joy to visit. Their renowned politeness is often referenced as a joke or a cliché, but it’s impossible not to appreciate when you come face to face with it.

For example, after wandering through the beautiful Isuien Garden in Nara, I asked the attendant of the gift shop if he happened to know the English name of a splashy pink flower blooming across the grounds. He said he wasn’t sure as he only knew its Japanese name; would I mind waiting a moment? I heard him phone the woman manning the entrance and overheard her say that she didn’t know it either. The attendant returned to me with a regretful bow and a sincere apology, all over the name of a flower. It’s the effort put in when there’s no need, the almost obsessive attention to detail, and the cherishing of true quality that make Japan an exceptional and exquisite place to visit..

Singapore American logo

 

SCUBA in the Summertime

Published on June 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re looking to try something new this summer, why not learn how to scuba dive? Singapore is surrounded by some of the world’s top dive sites, so it would be a shame not to give diving a try during your time here. Like driving a car, learning to dive can seem overwhelming at first. There are new terms and rules to memorize. You’ll probably ask, “What does that button do?” at least once. And you have to pass both a written test and practical demonstration of your skills to earn your license. But just as you developed muscle memory for changing gears and checking your mirrors, it won’t be long before clearing your mask and checking your oxygen level become automatic.

If the thought of paying for all that equipment turns you off, don’t worry. Dive resorts are usually stocked with everything from fins to wetsuits to regulators. There are only two pieces of gear I would recommend you invest in as a beginner: a carefully chosen mask that fits you well and doesn’t fog, and water boots in your size (occasionally rented fins can cut into your heels and sometimes you enter the water over a rocky beach).

There are a number of acronyms you’ll learn during your diving course but the first one you should know is PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Founded in the 1960s, PADI isn’t the only diver training organization in the world, but it is the largest and the most well-known in Southeast Asia. Other training organizations like National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) can also be found in Singapore. There are dozens of PADI-certified dive shops throughout the island but Eko Divers in Outram Park came recommended by a friend. We took their 3-day course to earn our Open Water certification, which consisted of two classroom sessions and one full-day session in a nearby swimming pool. The final segment of the course consisted of a weekend at a dive resort in Dayang, Malaysia, where our instructor guided us through the three ocean dives we needed to complete. Most dive shops in Singapore run weekend or week-long jaunts to the myriad dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia (and beyond), providing plenty of opportunities for you to put your new skills to use.

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

While my husband and I have only completed the entry level course, we have yet to feel restricted when exploring the reefs of Southeast Asia. The Open Water certification allows us to dive to a depth of 18 meters (to go deeper, you need an Advanced Diver certification), but I’ve found that most dive spots in the region can be enjoyed within this range. While the Advanced qualification allows you to do night dives and to go down to 30 meters, the main reason I’m considering earning it is to be able to more thoroughly explore shipwrecks. Encountering a turtle amidst the remains of the USAT Liberty, a relic from the Pacific War just 30 meters off of Bali’s shore, was nothing short of magical. And hovering alongside the teeming hull of a sunken sugar transport ship off the Perhentian Islands was one of the most breathtaking (no pun intended) sights I’ve ever seen. Yes, I pretend I’m the little mermaid every time.

In a time when selfie sticks have become a plague and we are pressured to capture every moment on film, scuba diving forces you to be in the present. You can’t use your phone or listen to music. You can’t even talk. Language is reduced to a series of simple hand signals: “Everything okay?” “Trumpet fish!” “Clownfish!” “Time to ascend to the surface.” While I certainly wouldn’t mind having a video of the sardine run in Cebu or a photo of that octopus in the Batangas, those memories are all the more precious because they were experienced fully. No reaching for a camera phone or trying to think of a caption for Facebook. Though you can, of course, buy an underwater casing for your camera or rent one from some dive shops. Nevertheless, I recommend you simply focus on your strange new surroundings and soak it all in.

Singapore American logo

 

A Weekend in Hong Kong

Published on February 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re homesick for the gritty vibrancy of New York City or just looking to spend a weekend somewhere other than a tropical beach, Hong Kong is the perfect whirlwind. Grungy, chaotic, and built amid a range of tall hills, Hong Kong seems to be opposite in personality from manicured, flat Singapore. And while you’ll never be able to see or do it all in a single weekend, the following itinerary will give you a taste of the buffet of experiences Hong Kong has to offer.

Friday Evening

Getting from the airport to the city is a piece of cake. Purchase the Airport Express Travel Pass, an Octopus card that holds one-way or roundtrip airport-to-city trips plus three consecutive days of unlimited travel on MTR. You can ride the brisk Airport Express straight to Central.

If you arrive before 10:00pm, head to Tsui Hang Village restaurant (New World Tower, 16-18 Queen’s Road) for Hong Kong’s most delicious tradition: dim sum. Like many of the city’s hidden gems, Tsui Hang Village is tucked away on the second floor of an innocuous office building. Their dim sum menu isn’t as extensive as one would hope, but the quality of their barbecue pork buns, tofu pudding and hand-torn chicken make up for it.

Drop your luggage off at your hotel and change into something swanky before taking a cab to the International Commerce Centre (the ICC building), which houses the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. On the 118th floor, you’ll find the ultra-modern Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world. Cocktails aren’t cheap but the view of Victoria Harbor at night is nothing short of breathtaking.

Saturday

Eminently walkable yet also stocked with reliable public transport, Hong Kong was built to be explored. Take the MTR to Diamond Hill Station in Kowloon and follow the signs to Nan Lian Garden, a Chinese classical garden designed in the style of the Tang Dynasty. While the popular Wong Tai Sin Temple is an easy walk away and worth a visit, I found the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery to not only be quieter but more fascinating. Founded in 1934, this Buddhist monastery’s interlocking wooden architecture is the only of its kind in Hong Kong.

Then it’s on to the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. You could take the MTR to Prince Edward Station, but I found it more fun to meander through Kowloon’s bustling suburbs, which allowed me to stroll through the charming Kowloon Walled City Park and to snag a snack in the food district. “Bird Garden” is bit of a misnomer – it’s actually a miniature market tucked onto a raised walkway enveloped in lush greenery. And even if you’re not looking to take home a sparrow or cockatiel, the towers and aisles of twittering cages are mesmerizing.

After all that exploring, it’s time for a luxurious interlude. Take the MTR down to Tsim Sha Tsui and indulge in Afternoon Tea in the lobby of the oldest hotel in Hong Kong, The Peninsula. When you’ve finishing savoring the delicate pastries and elegant architecture, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is just a short walk away. Finish your time on Kowloon by wandering along the famous waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

Take the last Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, soaking in the view of the skyline on the way, before heading to the raucous Lan Kwai Fong area, a cluster of bars and restaurants where you can grab a bite and party until all hours.

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Sunday

Linger over breakfast and coffee at one of the city’s many cafés before making your way to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which opens at 10:00am and is located inside Hong Kong Park. Originally built in 1844, the museum building was the office and residence of the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong up until 1978. In addition to admiring the gorgeous building, you’ll learn about the history of tea drinking in China and the gentle art of creating clay teapots.

Next to the Museum of Tea Ware is the K.S. Lo Gallery, which houses ceramics dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644AD). For a real treat, settle into the Chinese Teahouse on the ground floor for traditional tea snacks and tea prepared the old-fashioned way. From the park, it’s a quick walk
to the famous Peak Tram, a Victorian-era train that hauls visitors up to the highest peak on Hong Kong Island. If the weather is clear, the views are well worth the crowds and the ticket price.

After descending, wander towards Hollywood Road and en route be sure to ride the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators (the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world). Hollywood Road and its many side streets are chock full of antique shops, boutique clothing stores, artisanal coffee shops, and chic wine bars. Spend the afternoon getting lost and finding one-of-a-kind souvenirs to take home..

Singapore American logo

 

The Charm of Inle Lake

Published on October 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

A quick flight north from Yangon and a long, winding drive through the mountains of Myanmar will lead you to the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake. The calm, blue waters are a bracing contrast to the red earth and the dusty green landscape surrounding it. Located in the Nyaung Shwe Township of the Shan State with an estimated surface area of 116 square kilometers, it is the second largest lake in Myanmar. We stayed at the scenic Hupin Hotel in rustic rooms that stood on stilts in the low, lapping water of the lake, which was host to a flotilla of emerald-green water plants. From our balconies we watched boats return to the hotel through the pagoda-style gateway in a fence made of sticks that separated our cove from the open water. Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon and had scheduled a full day of touring the lake for the following day, we opted to borrow bicycles from the hotel and explore by land.

Cycling along the quiet little road in the dappled shadows of the trees had the thrill of a childhood adventure. We exchanged waves with the schoolchildren bound for home in their green longyi while we swerved around the occasional traffic: a truck carrying twenty people, a ramshackle tractor or two, men on motorcycles, and women encumbered with hefty bundles of sticks. Small paths led from the main road to simple pagodas and to the tightknit communities of local villages. Before we knew it, the afternoon had flown by and we had to hurry back to the hotel to catch the sunset. A tall hill stood next to the resort and we decided to scale it for a better view. Perched at the peak was the home of a Buddhist monk clad in traditional orange robes who happily pointed us to the western side of his pagoda-style living quarters and asked us about our homelands. I paused to remove my flip flops before stepping onto the wide stone porch that encircled the building but the monk shook his head and said there was no need. Plus the dogs would steal my shoes if I left them unattended. A gaggle of friendly, well-fed mutts romped around the grounds, pestering us to play as we soaked in the setting of the sun over the glittering Inle Lake. At night the secluded Nyaung Shwe Township slept under a brilliant blanket of stars.

The next morning we hired for the day a long, thin boat and its operator, and by 8:30am we were whizzing across the vast blue lake in the bright sunshine. The boat was affiliated with the hotel and so was well-equipped with cushioned chairs, umbrellas, water, and blankets to weather the sun and the wind. After some time we arrived at the Ywama inlet for the morning market and our boatman expertly maneuvered us through a traffic jam so thick you could barely see the water. Our boat mostly rubbed shoulders with the brightly painted tourist boats, but on the other side of the thin inlet I could see a large number of the unadorned canoes of the local villagers beached on the reedy shoreline.

IMAG1181The stalls around the edge of the market were piled high with souvenir items (Buddha statues, gemstones, marionettes, and the like – which may or may not have been authentic) but the further in we wandered the more we saw the stalls for locals on their daily errands. Women with thanaka (a creamy paste with cosmetic and sun protection purposes) painted on their cheeks sat cross-legged on elevated mats behind small mountains of tomatoes, eggs, and leafy greens. There were wide baskets of peanuts and beans, tables of flip flops and t-shirts, and piles of watermelons. Vendors fried bread-like snacks and served tea. A few tailors sat at their pedal-powered sewing machines under a loose patchwork ceiling of colored tarps. In one corner, a few barbers were laughing with their customers. Sitting at one of the marketplace’s outer edges was a row of men behind woven mats laden with fish big and small, all shimmering in the morning sun. Some were still gasping for air.

The Intha (the 70,000 or so people of Inle Lake) live in four cities bordering the water, in numerous small villages along the shore, and also on the lake itself. The village of Ywama is just one of many rustic villages and is part of the rotating market cycle of Inle; each weekday the market is hosted by a different village on the lake. After escaping the bustling clog of boats, we continued our tour by water. We zipped past villages built entirely on stilts that either stood in the water or in the verdant riverbanks. Floating mats of vegetation, anchored in place with bamboo poles, sported ripe tomato plants. Residents waved from their canoes, and from the bamboo walkways and simple bridges that arched over the canals. Since nearly all the homes and public buildings were perched on piles driven into the lakebed, these villages had no town squares. Instead, the Intha gathered in pagoda complexes and monasteries like Nga Phe Kyaung (nicknamed the Jumping Cat Monastery for its cats trained to jump through hoops). Unsurprisingly, these peaceful community centers receive most of their guests by water and are rimmed in long docks.

Approaching by boat every time, we spent the afternoon paying visits to a silk weaving shop, a metal smith, a silversmith, and a parasol workshop: all exquisite industries that the people of Inle Lake are known for. The culture of the Intha is rich and fascinating, and it is heavily influenced by Buddhism and by their aqueous environment. They are water people through and through. They’re on boats as often as not. Their cuisine is centered around fish. Every stork-like house has a collection of canoes leashed to the porches from which the Intha simply reach down to the water’s surface to wash their clothes or themselves. The entire drama of their lives is played out on this lake. But the most notable aspect of the Intha—and of the Burmese people in general—is their genuine affability. A warm smile and a friendly wave greeted us wherever we went on land or water. On our return to the hotel, as our boat coasted through the sunset, we passed a young woman sitting cross-legged at the bow of her boat and she impulsively tossed me a flower. I grinned in thanks and she waved goodbye before effortlessly sailing off across the surface of her home.

Singapore American logo

 

Yogyakarta in a Weekend

Published on May 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Prambanan

When I was first invited to spend the weekend in Yogyakarta, I admit I had to Google where it was. Located in the southern part of Central Java in Indonesia, the district of Yogyakarta is famous for its proximity to two breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound of Prambanan. Regardless of my ignorance, Yogyakarta (occasionally spelled Jogjakarta) has become Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination after Bali and it is widely regarded to be the center of Javanese culture. Best of all, it is small enough to make it an excellent weekend destination from Singapore.

Friday Afternoon

A purple storm brewed in the sky as we made our way through the bustle of Yogyakarta’s small airport and the March rain came down hard during the hour-long drive to the Manohara Hotel. The hotel cuddles up to the Borobudur Temple compound and it is the only guesthouse within walking distance from the immense 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist structure. Not long after our arrival, we borrowed umbrellas from the front desk and set off into the wet afternoon. We scaled Borobudur’s six square levels and the top three circular platforms, simulating the path that Buddhist monks follow on pilgrimages to the temple site. The rain darkened the stone statues of headless Buddhas that guarded each tier and the entire temple had a hushed, peaceful atmosphere about it. Borobudur’s Javanese architecture perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology: the dense stone base of represents the sphere of desire; five square terraces represent the sphere of form; and the sphere of formlessness is represented by the three circular platforms as well as the large stupa topping the structure. The ascending stairways and paths are lined by over 2,000 carved stone panels in the walls which depict these three realms in detailed relief.

Saturday

We woke bleary-eyed before dawn and were led through the dark by a hotel staff member, who gifted us all with flashlights. After gingerly climbing to the temple’s summit, we perched on the ledge of the top tier to await the sun amidst the Buddha statues encased in their perforated stone stupas. The countryside was quiet and the full moon shone like a spotlight over our heads. Pale blue mists swirled around the surrounding mountains and then glowed gold as the first rays of sunlight struck them. Birds sang overhead in the fresh morning air, which was warming up quickly.

After breakfast, we relocated to the Phoenix Hotel, an elegant historic building from 1918 in Yogyakarta City, and spent the day leisurely weaving through the throngs of horse carts, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, cars, trucks and pedestrians. On the crowded streets of the popular Malioboro district, petite stores sold everything from cellphones to traditional Javanese clothing. Men caught naps in the shaded seats of their trishaws. By the park, women crouched over fiery barbecues grilling delicious-smelling satay skewers. Yogyakarta is a prosperous town that is growing—like a great many towns in Indonesia—but it is growing at a rate of its own choosing. Foreign investment is present but it doesn’t overpower the local culture, giving the city a distinct personality that is an inimitable blend of heritage and modernity.

Yogyakarta retains strong communities that are focused on carrying on traditions in silver work, the creation of batik fabric, and gamelan music. But the most alluring of these artistries are the performances of wayang kulit or shadow puppets, which are fastidiously crafted masterpieces of leather, buffalo horn and bamboo. The ethereal movements of the shadowy figures draw you into their world and you find yourself transfixed on the story they tell. There are a number of puppet shows that take place on various days in Yogyakarta; the best way to find one is to ask a local (or the front desk at your hotel) where the best show near you is.

There were two more stops on our list before dinner: the kraton and the bird market around the Taman Sari castle complex. ‘Bird Market’ turned out to be a misnomer; while there were cages upon cages of roosters and parakeets and budgies, you could also buy squirrels, puppies, bats, pythons, hedgehogs, iguanas, civets, and the list just kept going. While the market provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the local people, it’s not for the squeamish. Live ants and maggots are kept on hand as birdfeed, and plenty of the cuddly animals are purchased to be eaten.

The Yogyakarta Kraton complex serves as the principal residence of the sultan and hosts a number of official ceremonies, however the sultanate officially became part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. The compound is often hailed as the cultural heart of the region. Music and dance performances are regularly held within the palace grounds and the buildings are a majestic display of Javanese architecture. Most of the palace complex is a museum with numerous artifacts on display, including a variety of gifts presented to the sultanate from the kings of Europe and a complete gamelan set.

Sunday

The Phoenix Hotel provided a good night’s sleep, breakfast and a convenient starting point for our final destination. Upon our arrival to the Prambanan Temple Compounds, the staff manning the entrance tied white and indigo batik around our waists, which drew much amusement from the groups of local schoolchildren also visiting the famous UNESCO site. The stunning shrine was built in the 9th or 10th century and consists of over 200 separate temples, which makes this compound the biggest temple complex in Java, the most expansive Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the largest temple sites in Southeast Asia. Originally there were 240 temples but a number of those have unfortunately been reduced to piles of rubble on the grass. The compound is dedicated to the three great Hindu divinities—Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma—and is considered to be one of the world’s top three ancient masterpieces of Hindu architecture. The central building is devoted to Shiva and looms high at 47 metres (154 feet) tall. We spent hours exploring the otherworldly temple complex, and it was too soon that we were on our way back to the airport to catch our flight home.

Though the region of Yogyakarta is small enough to see in a weekend, the city’s warm and unique character also makes a destination worth experiencing for a second time. There are far too many streets to discover, cheerful people to meet and tasty restaurants to try to only visit Yogyakarta once.

Singapore American logo