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.

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The Temple of Great Virtue

On March 25, 2017 the adorably-named Thoughtful Dog magazine published my short story, The Temple of Great Virtue:

The full name of the place was 1 Night 1980 Hostel Tokyo, the entrance on a clean backstreet two dozen blocks north of Ueno Station. Elsewhere, the areas of Ginza, Roppongi and Shibuya were flaring up, gardens of light and taut gushes of activity, but their vivacity didn’t reach this far. As evening settled in, life bowed and retreated inside, leaving the bright sentry-like vending machines the lone observers of the two girls (or were they women now?) circling the building in search of the hostel’s sign: “1980” in black on a glowing white square. The salaryman’s colors.

Kira dug her fingers into the shoelaces and then the heels of her sneakers, stepping out of them into the economical lobby, too small to complete a full cartwheel in. Clarissa followed suit, eyes flicking to Kira for cues. The girl (Kira wouldn’t call her a woman) behind the counter stood up and the Japanese greeting Kira intended to say emerged in English, to align with the straight brown hair parted dead center and the not quite American accent. This would have been Kira’s first chance to exhibit her language skills in front of Clarissa, a demonstration of how different a world this was from the tri-state area and how necessary Kira was, but no matter. There would be ample opportunity. It was enough that Clarissa was eyeballing with trepidation the ticket machine that loomed in front of the check-in desk.

“Where are you from?” Kira asked, though the girl was probably as sick of that question as she was.

The girl’s wan smile, the way she didn’t look up from their registration forms as she replied, “Canada,” confirmed this.

“But I’ve lived here a long time,” she added, as though by emphasis alone she could more fully fasten herself to Japan, loosen the roots of Canada from the soil of her identity.

“How long?” Kira asked, curious and friendly, an expat herself.

“Five or six years,” the Canadian said, her face a theatrical struggle to recall the number.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Kira had lived in Singapore for nearly as long, but didn’t say so. She handed over her passport and wondered if the Canadian realized yet that Japan was not a country prone to adopting its admirers, that she would be forever spoken to in broken English and permitted to make social blunders the Japanese would eviscerate one another for, that her stint here was cute but would always be considered temporary.

“Why are American passports so garish?” The Canadian asked with a snicker, holding Clarissa’s open at the full color photo and the illustration of a bald eagle.

Clarissa didn’t laugh, but Kira did and pulled out her other passport.

“At least the photo is better than the Irish one. Black and white. Like a creepy mug shot.”

They had to pay cash, the Canadian said, disengaging from her check-in booth to identify the appropriate buttons – raised and analog, marked with room types and number of nights, which clicked pleasantly when pushed. But first they would each need to feed the ticket machine ¥6400. Clarissa goggled at Kira. She had forgotten to exchange her dollars at the airport, had assumed she could do that anywhere. As though Tokyo were Disneyland, a series of smooth paths lined with entertainment and convenience in equal measure. Kira shrugged, offered to cover them both, but then found she was short. As the Canadian explained with impatience that a 7-Eleven two blocks over had an ATM, Kira inserted seven ¥1000 bills and retrieved her tickets and change. The Canadian looked askance when Kira handed over a ticket for a big towel along with the one for the room.

“You don’t need the big towel. You get one as part of your amenities kit. You get a fresh towel, body wash, toothbrush, etc, every day.”

“Everyone?” Kira asked.

“It’s only for female guests.”

“Why?” Clarissa asked. “That seems sexist.”

“It’s not sexist. Most of our guests are male, so it’s an incentive to encourage women to stay here. But I can’t check you in until you’ve both paid,” she said with a huff.

They walked through the quiet, humid streets, getting lost almost immediately as Clarissa hadn’t listened to more than the beginning of the instructions. Kira hadn’t listened at all. She hailed a passing businessman in his fifties, who was quintessentially accommodating and pointed them in the right direction. Kira picked over the magazine rack, chanting dumbass in her mind, happily unhelpful as Clarissa realized she would need to overdraft her account. In response to her comment on how silly it was that her $200 was useless, Kira said nothing.

At 28, Kira felt barely adult. It was a role she could assume but which retained the sensation of a memorized act. However, next to Clarissa, three weeks her senior, Kira’s adulthood shone with authenticity. Despite a yearlong boyfriend, Clarissa still exuded the air of a virgin, stammering in surprise when Kira told her they would need to be naked at the hot springs in Hakone. It was a challenge to imagine Clarissa having sex, but unfathomable to envision her attempting seduction. Clarissa still opened her mouth and let burps out at will, unaware that following with an “Excuse me” did nothing to cancel out the disgust that pricked at Kira (and, Kira presumed, others).

“You see her, what, once a year for a lunch when you’re in the States. I don’t see why she deserves ten days all of a sudden,” Eóin had reproached when Kira admitted to reconfiguring her week solo in Japan to accommodate Clarissa’s proposed joint vacation. “At most, she deserves a weekend. What has she ever given you?”

The question resurfaced in Kira’s mind as they made their way back, Clarissa celebrating every correct turn with excited yips.

“I think you’re one of the only people I know who walks faster or at least on par with me,” Clarissa said.

“Huh,” Kira replied, out of breath from keeping stride with Clarissa’s gait, which approached a run and rendered the living, foreign streets mere scenery.

But that’s how their friendship had gone since freshmen year: Clarissa oozing over the depths of their closeness and similarity of feeling, while the grit and texture of who Kira really was vanished in Clarissa’s watercolor portrait of her.

Back in paper slippers in the grey lobby, they obtained Clarissa’s ticket and then waited with amenity kits in hand. A vending machine was wedged between the reception desk and the elevator.

“Gerolsteiner,” Kira laughed, pointing out the bottles. “My German friend used to import that stuff and drink only that because she thought the water in Singapore made her hair fall out. It’s horrible.”

The Canadian leaned back in the check-in booth.

“So bad,” she agreed.

“And my friend would make me drink it every single time I went to her place.”

The Canadian rolled her eyes. Kira suspected that they could become friends, considered inviting her out for a drink.

The sixth floor was: ‘Women’s floor only. The violator will be prosecuted.’ The moderate space had been divided into slivers of hallways and the compact capsules they were to sleep in, each with only a curtain for privacy. Farts would be shared. Their closets lined one hallway, their bunks another. The toilets were in one room (unlocked), the showers in another (locked). The ritual activities, performed alone in a certain order, were to be uncoupled and rearranged and coordinated with others. The sleeping room smelled, a mix of socks and mustiness, as though the few windows hadn’t been opened since the hostel’s namesake year. Kira accepted it, knew she could put up with it for a few nights.

They dropped off their things and returned downstairs with their sneakers in plastic bags. The Canadian had come around her desk to demand in firm English that a huge red-cheeked Chinese woman remove her shoes at the door. The woman wheezed, baffled, mumbling about the bag she had left here earlier. Kira and Clarissa ducked around them as the Canadian, zealous as any convert, advanced on the woman to insist again that she take off her shoes. Tottering with her heels hanging out, Kira remembered that they had to hand over their closet keys before leaving. She held hers out to the Canadian, who scowled and took the crumpled plastic bag. The key hit the floor with a bounce and Kira scooped it up.

“Oh,” the Canadian said, taking the key.

But Kira knew it was too late. She had been relegated to the class of guests who mistreated the Canadian, and now ranked among the locals who tittered at the Canadian for acting Japanese and the drunk men who tried to wheedle their way onto the sixth floor. Kira doubted the Canadian had a procedure for appeals, even if the misinterpretation was hers, and the possibility of friendship extinguished into smoke.

Akihabara’s ice white fluorescents only drove Clarissa’s jetlag in deeper, so dinner was quick, with Kira doing most of the talking around their bowls of udon noodles. When they returned to the hostel, the Canadian replied to their calls of goodnight with a tight-lipped smile. For the remainder of their few days in Tokyo, she was absent, her place at reception taken by a languid Japanese man. Kira was once again stuck with Clarissa on an island of English, where Clarissa seemed to suck up all the resources, spraying her conception of Japan over the living country. It fascinated Kira how Clarissa was incapable of eliminating herself from her observations. Everything was made relevant and relative. It was bearable though. Kira’s relish at Tokyo’s familiar bustle, its brisk autumn stride, plus the afternoons she begged for herself, all countered Clarissa’s disbelief that an Asian country could be so similar and yet different to what she knew.

“They have women-only subway cars? Why?”

“Well, you’ve seen the crush of the commutes. Some men use that to grab a free handful.”

“Wait. Really? But the Japanese are so quiet and polite.”

“You really think what you see is all there is?”

“Of course not,” Clarissa defended, producing the right response without bothering to examine it deeper.

The parks and gardens Kira had fastidiously starred on Google Maps were a pleasant and disappointing green. Kira wanted to propel the friendly, lingering summer out the door and bask in the chilly, fiery solitude of fall, which was in its adolescence, the trees only just gilded around the edges or bejeweled with a few leaves the color of pomegranate arils. By peppering Kira with questions on Japan, Clarissa attempted to mask her impatience as they strolled. A nice patch of green was not Instagram-worthy. Hakone was though…

Finish reading the story at Thoughtful Dog!

 

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..

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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.

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