Good bye Singapore…or till we meet again?

7 05 2010

Probably every single person has said this when an important experience in their life comes to an end but it has to be said…it is so hard to believe that four months is already over :(. I am already putting a disclaimer out there that this post will be full of nostalgia so if you don’t like that kind of stuff, I recommend you skip this blog post and wait till my India posts. I still remember when I decided that I wanted to go on exchange. My intention was purely to gain some new experience (as vague as that sounds) and do some travelling. I hadn’t given much other thought to all the other amazing things that came along with exchange. As November and December 2009 drew nearer and my exchange was about to become reality, I remember I half-feared and half-hoped that this four month adventure that I was about to embark on would change me in some way, shape or form. But change doesn’t even begin to describe how different I feel after these past four months.

I remember when my British Airways flight announced that we would be landing in Singapore in about 20 minutes and the temperature was approximately 28 degree Celsius. I was excited about the weather but I nearly had my heart jumping out of my chest and my mind asking me over and over again “what have you done! Get on the next flight back to Toronto ASAP!” After some deep breaths and some mental reassurance, I said to myself that there is no backing out now and this is my moment. As I went through immigration, picked up my luggage and got into a cab to the airport I remember looking out the window and my mind telling me “wow you are so lucky! This place is so cool and so efficient!” The highways are covered in palm trees, flowers and everything looked orderly and beautiful. I remember getting to my campus and my mind being infiltrated with excitement and fear. I was wondering who my room mate was and whether we would get along. Little did I know that I had nothing to worry about. My room mate Christina and I immediately got along and I knew right away that we would be great friends.

My first couple of days in Singapore were exactly how one would describe the “honeymoon phase”. Everything seemed new and exciting and each day would begin at 8AM and end late in the night. It was kind of like first year frosh all over again where everyone is meeting new people and people are forming their group of friends. As time went by, my love story with Singapore only grew. After visiting so many countries I always felt comforted to be able to come back to Singapore where there was a steady flow of hot water, tap water was drinkable and everyone could speak English. Singapore was the perfect combination of South East Asian culture mixed with Western influence.

As time went by my weeks began to become a little bit more regular. Weekdays were class, Wednesday nights were Ladies Night at the clubs and weekends were saved for travelling. I couldn’t have asked for a better lifestyle. A lot of people have also been asking me what my favourite country has been. But this question is nearly impossible to be answer since each country has its own unique culture, landscape and people. Picking a favourite country is like asking someone to pick their favourite child…impossible because each is so different and special.
However if you asked me my top five experiences, I can definitely tell you those. These are not ranked in any special order so please do not think of them as ranked in order of preference. Here they are…

a) Elephant trekking in Krabi, Thailand
b) Snorkelling for the first time on Phi Phi with all the different fish and coral
c) Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia
d) Being out on the South China Sea in El Nido, Philippines
e) The Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam

I don’t think I need to explain why I’ve ranked these as my top five experiences because I think my blog posts on each country speak for themselves as to why each of these moments were so special. Nevertheless, I cannot even begin to explain how much Singapore and South East Asia has changed my outlook on travelling, adventure and life (as cliché as that sounds). After these four months, I know I can rough it anywhere, sleep almost anywhere and eat almost anything. So now here is my final thank you to Singapore for giving me the opportunity to visit over 7 different countries, more than 15 different cities and meet some of the most incredible people I have ever met in my life…so thank you…


Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

7 05 2010

Here I am…the final destination of my four month study abroad exchange (more like a 4 month travel adventure of South East Asia). We have arrived at the famous city of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City). After years of war, the Vietnamese are nothing short of proud of their heritage and accomplishments…and rightfully so. So before I delve too deep into a history lesson, let me begin by sharing a day by day recount of my time in Vietnam.

On our first day in Vietnam, we arrived in the evening and the weather was beginning to cool down so my friend Bonita and I were looking forward to going to some local markets to do some shopping. Since Vietnam was going to be my last adventure while on exchange, (before my big trip to India), I knew I wanted to do lots of shopping here. As soon as we checked into our hostel (which actually turned out to be like 2-3 star hotel) we immediately headed over to the famous Ben Thanh Market. It was here thatmy friend Bonita and I did some crazy shopping. The stuff was not only cheap but we even stumbled upon some legitimate things (I think this is due to the fact that there are a lot of factories in Vietnam so somehow they create “extra” which is sold on the “black market”). We even found a little stall that was selling real Abercrombie, Pink, Forever21 etc. After our little shopping spree we went on the hunt for some authentic Pho (a famous Vietnamese noodle soup dish). Typically in Toronto, you can get Pho anywhere between $6-10 CAD but in Vietnam we found Pho for barely $2 CAD!

For day two in Vietnam, my friend and I booked a trip to the Mekong Delta river. The tour was suppose to begin at 7:40AM but we didn’t end up getting picked up until almost 8:30AM! My friend said the Vietnamese are known to be typically late (kind of like Indian people lol). On the Mekong Delta tour we began the day by taking a boat to a bunch of tiny little islands (but not beach islands) but islands where people had “factories” and were working. Our first stop was the coconut candy factory. Here we saw people actually squeezing the water from the coconut, heating it, adding a little flavour and then eventually rolling it out onto candy size pieces. There is also rice paper over the coconut candy that is completely edible. At our next stop we watched some people sing some traditional Vietnamese songs and do some Vietnamese dance. Finally we stopped for lunch which was nothing extravagant so I won’t even bother mentioning it. However there was an elephant ear fish (or something by that name) that was supposed to be a Vietnamese speciality so the couple beside us ordered that and it basically turned out to be a massive deep fried fish that you eat with rice paper rolls and some vegetables. After lunch we did some fruit tasting of some exotic fruits such as jackfruit (my favourite since Cambodia) and dragon fruit (kind of tastes like kiwi but is white with black seeds). Here we also some of the biggest durians I have ever seen! Our last stop along the Mekong Delta was a honey tea tasting where I got to poke my finger into a bee hive and try some sweet honey tea.

Day three was what I was most looking forward to…the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you are not familiar with what the Cu Chu Tunnels are, I highly recommend you look it up on Wikipedia. In short, they were underground tunnels that the Vietnamese to use live in and use as an escape route from the Americans during the Vietnam War against the Americans. We watched a short documentary on the Cu Chu Tunnels but we also got to go inside them and see what it felt like to be inside a tiny little tunnel. The feeling was extremely claustrophobic and nerve-racking. The tunnels were made for tiny Vietnamese men but our guide told us that since the end of the war they have made the tunnels slightly bigger so that they would fit “Western size people”. We also saw some of the hand-made weapons that the Vietnamese used during the war and how they produced them. Words cannot even describe what it was like visiting a previous war site where many of the tunnels are still well in-tact. Although this was only a half-day tour, it was probably one of my top five experiences while on exchange. After the tour was over, my friend and I decided to check out some more local markets. We visited some local market (I forget the name but it was nothing special there) but we also went to the indoor Ben Than Market (the previous one we went to was the night market). The indoor Ben Than Market is crazy…shops, stalls, vendors galore! Everyone is selling pretty much the same thing so all prices are negotiable. If you are ever in Vietnam, I would highly recommend that you allocate at least 4-5 hours to visit this market as there is plenty to see and lots to eat as well! On the eve of my last night in Vietnam, I thought I would go to the beauty salons and see what they have to offer. With the intention of just getting a manicure and pedicure, I ended up walking out of there with both along with a bunch of other things and an appointment to get a Japanese hair straightening the next day! Ahhhh lol…

So I woke up 6:30AM the next morning for my 3 hour hair straightening appointment and when I walked out, I was very happy with the results! Now I no longer needed to deal with the extreme humidity in Singapore that always made my hair frizzy and when I came out of the shower, my hair was always straight (no need to blow dry or straighten anymore!)
Anyway, aside from the shopping and the beauty parlour, I would definitely put Vietnam as one of my favourite destinations. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to go up to Hanoi (which is suppose to have an incredible landscape) but Ho Chi Minh was a really tourist friendly place with lots of great food, sights and shopping to do/see.

*Note: I apologise for the lack of pictures on this post. This is mainly due to the fact that I had no camera and since I am posting this entry from India, the internet here is so slow that it would take me 2 months to add pictures 😦

Asia’s Hidden Gem: El Nido, Philippines

30 04 2010

El Nido is truly a hidden gem in South East Asia. This is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life (and that is pretty hard to say after you have visited Phi Phi Island in Thailand). However getting to El Nido is a story in itself. After having taking a 3.5 hour flight from Singapore to Manila, we took a 1 hour flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa and then eventually hired a driver to take us along the 6 hour dirt/cliff road to take us to El Nido.

El Nido

Now was the long journey worth it? Hell yes! El Nido is so far away that only those looking for a real adventure are willing to trek it out. The 6 hour drive is another story. By far the bumpiest, scariest and craziest road trip of my life! For the entire 6 hours, I think I only stayed sitting on my seat for approximately 40 minutes whereas I spent the remaining time flying up and down while the driver took us along the most scariest “roads” (more like dirt path ways) I have ever seen. We left for El Nido at approximately 4AM from Puerto Princesa and arrived into El Nido at about 10AM. Along the way, I think our driver almost ran over a dog (from what seemed like the screech of a dog crying) we can only assume it was some sort of wild animal.

Along the dirt path to El Nido

In any case, El Nido is similar to Phi Phi Island in a number of ways but quite different at the same time. El Nido is on the northern tip of Palawan so there many beautiful islands surrounding the town. The beaches hang off of the South China Sea and there are huge limestone cliffs everywhere! On our first day in El Nido, we checked into our hostel and we were absolutely stunned at the view once we walked out of our room. Literally, the minute you step outside your room you are on forefront of the beach surrounded by the sound of huge waves and beautiful limestone cliffs in the background. On the top floor of our hostel is a family owned restaurant where they have what they call “nests” where you can relax and watch the waves or the stars from a cushioned seat. Although the view from our room was incredible — accommodation was anything but amazing. Let’s just say I know I can “rough it” anywhere after these 4 months in Asia.

The "nest" at the restaurant The Alternative

After settling into our hostel, we took a small island hopping tour to the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, 7 Cammando Beach and a few other islands.  The Small Lagoon was absolutely incredible. Since I have a bit of a fear (actually a huge fear) of deep water I am usually reluctant to go swimming in the ocean but…El Nido was a big “stepping out of my comfort zone” moment. Our tour guides were among the nicest people I have ever encountered on my travels. The Captain (or so we liked to call him) who guided the boat was very friendly and always willing to help and his helpers were even nicer! One specific crew member was a young Filipino man by the nick-name of Bot. Bot actually held my hand and stayed with me the entire time while snorkelling in the Small Lagoon! He was so patient and always willing to help me keep up with the rest of the group. I cannot express enough gratitude to how much I appreciated his willingness to help me snorkel in the deep waters of the South China Sea lol! Our tour guides actually took us to a cave in the Small Lagoon where we got to go inside some of the limestone cliffs. This was absolutely incredible! Unlike Phi Phi Island where you are surrounded by tourists everywhere, in El Nido it was literally just us, the islands and the water. Being the only foreigners trekking it into the caves of the Small Lagoon was amazing.
Throughout our island hopping, we encountered some of the strongest and biggest waves ever. They constantly rocked and swayed our boat but it made the experience all the more enjoyable and adventurous! Our last island destination for day 1 in El Nido was 7 Cammando island where we got to hang out on the beach and relax. We made little mer-men of our friends in the sand and just got to relax and enjoy the beautiful beach weather. However the day ended in a tragedy for a traveler…my most prized and precious possession fell into the water of the South China Sea. My camera. Sadly, my camera was unable to recover for the rest of the trip so I had to ask friends to take lots of pictures for me to help me remember my adventures.

Island hopping day 1

On our second day in El Nido, the rest of our group arrived! We had already arrived with 7 people but an additional 7 friends joined us the second day. We had discussed with the Captain and crew that we would like to do a “real hand made” lunch so the Captain took a few of us out in to the market where we bought the biggest fish I have ever seen and vegetables and lots of fruit (LOTS OF MANGOES ACTUALLY!). After shopping at the market for our meal, we hopped onto the boat and began the day. Our first island destination was suppose to be where we went snorkelling but due to the waves, the island was absolutely covered in jellyfish! I have never seen so many jelly fish in my life. There must have been easily more than 100 jelly fish on the beach and more than 100 surrounding the boat and in the water. Unfortunately we couldn’t do any snorkeling here so instead we headed over to Snake Island.

At the peak of Snake Island

On Snake Island, there aren’t any actual snakes but instead the island is just in the shape of a snake. It was here we climbed up to the top of the cliff of the island where we got have an amazing view of the entire El Nido landscape. Interestingly there was a shallow “water pathway” where me and my friends did what we like to call “walk from one end of end of the South China Sea to the other” (but really we just walked from Snake Island to a series of man groves) but lets stick with the first idea since it sounds so much cooler lol. Laughing, cracking jokes and just being with friends in El Nido was a really nice and happy experience.

After what seemed like hours from one end of the water to the other, lunch was ready! We ate like kings…literally! The Captain and his crew made a huge fish and cut up all the fruits and vegetables that we bought. Everything was absolutely delicious! With just vinegar and a few other seasonings, the fish tasted amazing! After our incredible feast we did some snorkeling in the ocean and to our amazement, one of our guides found a huge starfish!

El Nido

After what felt like a few hours on Snake Island we did some touring of the neighboring islands and caves. We visited two caves both of which we got to climb into. The second cave that we visited was particularly interesting because we had to park our boat outside the limestone cliff and then swim into the cave. Our next destination was sand bar which was pretty much sand in the middle of the ocean. It was here that me and the girls had so much fun taking jumping photos, “candid” shots and just enjoying the sun and sand. Finally we ended the evening by watching the sunset from our boat as we headed back to shore.

The Cave

In the evening we headed over to a local Philippino restaurant for dinner where me and a few friends ordered 5-6 dishes to share amongst a few people. The food didn’t arrive for at least 1.5 hour so along the way we made jokes, talked about our day and just enjoyed each others company. After dinner, we went back to our hostel to freshen up but it was pretty tough “freshening up” since the water pressure from the shower was so minimal and it honestly felt like we were bathing in salt water. In any case, we made the most of it and I know I can “rough it” after this experience lol. Unfortunately this was our last night in El Nido since me and my friend Bonita had a 10AM flight back to Manila from Puerto Princesa so we actually had to take the crazy van ride back to Puerto Princesa at approximately 2AM in order to make it back in time.

At sunset

When we did arrived back in Puerto Princesa (at about 6AM), the airport was apparently “closed” so we had to hang around Puerto Princesa for a few hours until we could get our flight back to Manila. After arriving in Manila, me and my friend Bonita had to wait for our other friends (who had a later flight into Manila from Puerto Princesa) to catch our flight back home to Singapore…from the Clarke airport. You see…as a budget traveler, we booked a flight back home to Singapore from Clarke airport since it was the cheaper airport however, we were unaware (at the time) that Clarke is actually 2.5 hours away from Manila! So here we hired another driver to drive us 7 friends from Manila to Clarke. Finally after almost 24 hours of travelling we arrived back in Singapore from what felt like the craziest but one of the most fun trips…

The Philippines — Manila and Puerto Princesa

26 04 2010

Where do I even begin when discussing the Philippines? This was probably among the most stressful/travel intensive trips I have ever done. Since distances from one location to another are quite far, it takes a long time to get from point A to point B in the Philippines. On our first day we arrived in Manila, my friend Bonita and I headed to our hostel and we began exploring the city of Manila. Our first destination was to go see Fort Santiago which is where José Rizal (the Philippines national hero) was imprisoned before his execution in 1896. Most of Fort Santiago was dedicated to Rizal and it appeared like there was almost a shrine of him in every corner. So what makes Rizal so special to the Filipino’s? Well he was among the most prominent advocates for reform in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. Rizal wrote numerous books and essays on peaceful institutional reform in the Philippines.

Fort Santiago, Manila

After visiting Fort Santiago, we had a little bit of a scary incident while heading over to San Augustin Church but I won’t share that here on the blog (ask me in person and I will tell you the story). Since it was actually a big group of us travelling in the Philippines, my friend and I decided it would be a good idea to go back to our hostel and wait for the rest of our group to arrive from Clarke airport which is approximately 2 hours away from Manila.

When the rest of our group arrived we decided to some exploring — local style. We took a jeepney to a local night market in Manila called Divisoria. A jeepney is essentially a jeep that operates like a bus but is much smaller and it feels like a tight, un-air conditioned box. When we arrived in Divisoria, it was a huge market with absolutely no other foreigners. My friends and I were pretty much the only tourists and this was a nice change since we got to experience more local culture. The night market sold a whole bunch of random and useless things so I didn’t end up buying much but the best thing about the night market was the mangoes!  Since mangoes are my favourite fruit, it was like heaven to be surrounded by cheap, fresh mangoes everywhere!

Jeepney in Manila

The next day we took another flight to Puerto Princesa which is the capital of the province of Palawan which is suppose to be cleanest city in the Philippines (and trust me, it was a nice change from Manila since Manila was one of the dirtiest cities I have ever been to). Puerto Princesa was a cute little town with little to no tourists. The city is covered in beaches and wildlife and the most famous attraction: The Underground River. Unfortunately due to time constraints we didn’t have a chance to visit the Underground River but instead we went to Honda Bay (which is island hopping) and we went to a secluded beach where it was just me and my 4 friends on the island. It was pretty cool to have a beach all to yourself for a couple of hours. It was here at this beach that I saw some of the biggest and loudest waves I have ever seen in my life! Although the waves were really far from us, you could hear them and see them very clearly!

Honda Bay, Puerto Princesa

We ended our one night in Puerto Princesa by having an amazing dinner at the famous sea food restaurant in town: Ka Lui! The food was fresh and all different types of seafood. The meal started with appetizer of clam soup then we moved onto seaweed salad, had amazing fish (twice!) and ended the meal with a fruit salad served in coconut. This was probably one of the best meals I have ate on my travels…or in my life…lol.

Dinner at Ka Lui before the food arrived

The hostel we stayed at in Puerto Princesa is also worth mentioning. The place was called Banwa and it was decorated and adorned with local artifacts and wood-sculpted figurines. It was here we met a very nice German man living in the Philippines who helped arrange all our transportation to our next destination: El Nido and he gave us all the great food recommendations as well. I would definitely have to say that El Nido was probably one of the most amazing trips I have ever had so I feel it deserves it’s own blog post…so stay tuned for that 😉

At Ka Lui, after the food arrived

Macau — Asia’s Las Vegas

26 04 2010

Now that I have already been to the New York of Asia, it is only appropriate that I make my next trip to the Las Vegas of Asia: Macau, China! Surrounded by casino’s galore and interesting Chinese-Portuguese architecture, Macau is the only European colony of China. Since I only did a day trip to Macau, this blog post won’t take up too much of your time so lets begin…

The day begin with an 1.5 hour ferry ride to Macau from the Hong Kong ferry terminal. When we arrived in Macau, it was just crazy confusion. We wanted to be downtown Macau where all the action was but we were confused as to how to get there since Hong Kong and Macau use different currencies. There are numerous free shuttle buses to get to the casino but being a foreigner, it is pretty challenging to navigate yourself for the first time to a central location. My friends and I were afraid that if we took a free shuttle to the casino’s it might be too far from downtown Macau so we hopped onto a regular bus.

Almond cookies in Macau

After a 20 minute bus ride we arrived in an area surrounded by cute little restaurants and shops. Our first meal of the day was what felt like a mix of Chinese-European cuisine (if that makes any sense?). Although it was noodles, it had a bit more of spicy kick to it but I am unsure if that has anything to do with the Portuguese influence. After our meal, we decided to do a bit more exploring and we came across a little store that made almond baked cookies (they are essentially dry Chinese-style cookies flavoured with almond). After having a few free samples, my friends and I completely indulged and ended up buying a box each. As we continued walking deeper into town we began to notice that a number of the stores all sold the exact same almond cookies and they were giving out free samples like no tomorrow! My friends and I kept eating the free samples until our stomachs hurt and we couldn’t even look at another cookie haha.

When our stomachs stopped hurting we headed up to go see the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The church was built in 1602 and it was adjoined with the Jesuit College of St. Paul’s, the first Western college in the Far East where missionaries came to learn Chinese. However in 1835 a fire started and it destroyed the college and the body of the church. The surviving remains of the church is covered with carvings and statues which illustrate the early days of the Church in China. Although the Ruins of St.Paul’s was pretty interesting to see, it is difficult to compare temples and churches after one has already seen Angkor Wat, the mother of all temples.

Ruins of St.Paul's

Nevertheless, we then headed over to do some exploring inside the casinos. Among the most impressive casinos was the Grand Lisbon, The MGM and The Wynn. Since casino’s are all pretty much the same inside, I don’t have any incredibly crazy stories to share but I do have to admit that the Grand Lisbon was probably the most beautiful casino I have ever seen. There are little glass chandeliers that hang from everywhere in the ceiling and they sparkle in the dim light. The Wynn was also really cool because every couple of hours they have a huge water and fire show (see below for the pictures/video). Unfortunately I didn’t end up doing the world’s largest bungee jump of 233 metres but overall, Macau was a really unique and fun experience.

Water and Fire show at The Wynn

Inside the Grand Lisbon

Hong Kong Love

21 04 2010
When they say Hong Kong is like the New York of Asia…it is absolutely true. The minute you get in to the Hong Kong airport, you are in a shoppers paradise surrounded by numerous movators and plenty of amazing food and shops! Let me begin with a day by day recount of my time in HK…

The first day we got there, we arrived in Fortress Hill which is a few MTR stops away from Central (the heart of the city). We did some exploring around our hostel and decided it would be a good idea to have some lunch! Since it was a rainy day, we did not want to venture too far out so we went to a nearby restaurant called LMX where I had some amazing milk tea, rice, herbed chicken wings and pork — all for the cost of only 29 HKD (3.75 CAD)! After a delicious lunch, we settled into our hostel and decided to begin the ultimate shopping experience at Mong Kok Ladies Market. With myself and 3 other girls who love to shop, we shopped till we were exhausted! Surrounded by shoes, hello kitty, designer bags of questionable legitimacy and local HK souvenirs; the HK Ladies Market was so much fun! The Ladies Market is full of locals, foreigners, food and drinks that just make the experience all the more worth while. When we finished our 6 hour shopping spree, we decided to head over to have some local Hong Kong food. Fortunately for me, I was with 3 other girls who are very familiar with Chinese culture so we knew the right places to go and eat. We ended up at a local restaurant where we ate a dim sum like cuisine (I forget the actual name but will find out) filled with soup and pork…this was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! Among 4 girls we must have ordered 10 orders of this (4 in each order) so we ate 40! This was by far one of my favourite dishes so far.

Buying bubble tea in Mong Kok

Buying bubble tea in Mong Kok

The next day we headed over to do some sight-seeing to experience a little more of Hong Kong life. We began our Sunday morning exploring Central and Soho. The Soho area is full of Western restaurants and lots of expatriates which can be seen by the number of unique multicultural restaurants. While we were in Central we were even able to see the filming of a local commercial or movie (not sure which one) but a full out camera crew was filming along the streets of Central. The Central/Soho area was a lot of fun to check out because it reminded me of Bloor St in Toronto with a street full of designer shops like Louis Vuitton, Coach, Prada etc. After what felt like hours of walking, we decided to have traditional dim sum at a local restaurant. The dim sum here in HK was amazing! Among 4 girls, we must have ordered about 12 different dim sum dishes among which my favourite was the sticky rice with pork and shrimp dumplings. I think me and my friends ate so much that our stomachs were going to explode (at least mine was)! haha

Sunday dim sum

Sunday dim sum

After our awesome dim sum feast we headed over to Ocean Park. Although Ocean Park was a typical theme park full of rides and animals, it was a really neat experience because we got to ride cable cars across the park. There are even escalators to take you from one end of the park to the other since it is built on an inclination so it is pretty hard to get up to the top. While we were going up the escalator, we actually saw an elderly woman faint and fall down the escalator. This was a traumatizing experience because we were standing right behind her and saw fall down the numerous stairs. However the medical authorities arrived quickly and the woman was treated. While we were in Ocean Park we also saw…PANDAS! They were so adorable and they just sat on their backs enjoying their bamboo sticks haha.
Panda at Ocean Park

Panda at Ocean Park

As the evening approached we went over to the Victoria Harbour to watch the The Symphony of Lights show which is an audio and lights show which can be seen across the Hong Kong city skyline. The show was incredible to watch but just being at the Victoria Harbour and seeing all the buildings light up was just amazing. Although I have always loved the Toronto city skyline, the Hong Kong city skyline is full of colours and multinational brands showing off their buildings. Once the light show was over we explored the Avenue of Stars which is kind of like the Hollywood Walk of Fame (but Asian style) with lots of famous Asian celebrities like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li etc. Now the real fun begins…when we finished exploring the Avenue of Stars we headed back over to Mong Kok and we found a building full of Asian photo booths! (haha) Being the fun girls that we are, we decided it would be hilarious to take series of photos in one of those Japanese photo booths that always make girls look really good! We must have spent at least 2.5 hours here taking the most hilarious and ridiculous photos. One of my favourite poses was “the family portrait” courtesy of my good friend Diana Yin who proposed that we all strike a pose family portrait style.

Victoria Harbour, Symphony of Lights Show

Victoria Harbour, Symphony of Lights Show

On our third day in HK, we actually decided to make a day trip to Macau which was only a ferry ride away but see my blog post on Macau for more information on that trip.

Finally we arrived in our final day in Hong Kong. We began the day at the Kowloon Walled City Park which is a park just outside of downtown HK which was originally a Chinese military fort but has since become a city park resembling architecture from the Qing Dynasty. The Kowloon Walled City Park was a nice get away from the hustle and bustle of the busy HK life. One of the most interesting things in the park was the Garden of Chinese Zodiac, containing stone statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

Kowlook City Walled Park

Kowlook City Walled Park

Since Hong Kong is known for its electronics, we then headed over the infamous Electronics Market to do some shopping. Some of my friends ended up buying thigns like memory cards, external hard drives etc. I actually ended up walking away with a Nokia cell phone. Although it is seemingly pretty basic, the phone itself is actually really nice! Since I have been without a phone in Asia for quite some time, I thought it would be a good idea for me to get one that I could also use while travelling in India. The cell phones that I saw were all at really good prices and there is no GST which makes the experience a lot more fun!

Aside from all the ridiculous amounts of shopping and incredible food, we had numerous stop overs at the bakeries in Hong Kong. The bakeries all smell so sweet and delightful that you can’t help but be lured in with the scent of freshly baked items. Some of my favourite treats were the egg tarts (actually made of custard) and pineapple buns! Nevertheless, there isn’t one specific thing that one can say they love about Hong Kong but it is the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the city that makes you want to stay.

My friends and I about to go shopping in Mong Kok

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

5 04 2010

Before going to Cambodia, I knew very little about Khmer culture or history except that the Cambodians survived a huge civil war from the 1970’s but I was unfamiliar with the degree of how horrific the civil war really was. I was familiar with Angkor Wat and I was keen to see one of the seven man made travel wonders of the world. But before I begin to explain my trip to Cambodia, I think a brief history lesson is in line for those of us who are unfamiliar with Cambodian history.

In the early 1860’s Cambodia was under a series of wars and battles between Vietnam and Thailand thus Cambodia was in danger of losing its sovereignty so they sought the help of the French for protection. Although the French did “protect” Cambodia’s sovereignty and borders, it did not leave much of a colonial impact as one would think. The French were far more interested in Vietnam as an economic engine than Cambodia and even as WW2 came to an end, there were still no universities in Cambodia! (As a University student this is outrageous!)

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Eventually Cambodia gained independence in 1953 but happiness in Cambodia was short lived. In the 1960’s Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War with the USA. Apparently the US began secretly carpet bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia. In 1970, a military coup overtook the Cambodian government and American and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in order to root out communist forces. Unfortunately they failed and the country was plagued with fighting. Eventually Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 (Cambodian communist party).

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge controlled every aspect of Cambodian life. People from big cities like Phonm Penh were driven out of their homes, money was abolished and Cambodia became a peasant dominated communist country. The Khmer Rouge killed and tortured those who were doctors, nurses, teachers, former government officials, the disabled (and even people who wore glasses) — basically anyone with an education was killed because the Khmer Rouge feared that the educated would try to lead a rebellion. All technology (even watches) were destroyed and the Khmer Rouge tried to remove all “Western” influence in order to go back to what they called — true “Khmer life”. By 1979, more than two million people died as a result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge who rationed all the food (often resulting in malnutrition and starvation) and/or were killed by Pol Pot’s soliders. Eventually in 1978, Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge but they still led a guerilla war through the 1980’s (which was primarily financed by China and Thailand) against the Vietnamese.

View from one of the towers at Angkor Wat

OK — so the history lesson is over but that was interesting wasn’t it? It is so sad and unfortunate that the Western world knows so little about the genocide in Cambodia. Nevertheless, I will stop talking about Cambodian politics and history and focus more on my experience there. When I arrived at the Siem Reap, it was just a big open piece of land with a medium sized building in the middle as the airport — unlike the huge airports we are use to seeing like Lester B. Pearson and London Heathrow. We arrived at Siem Reap at 7 AM and we were extremely tired and groggy from having been up most of the night. The guesthouse we were staying at, Golden Temple Villa, had agreed to do a free airport pick up for us. We were greeted by a young tuk-tuk driver who held a sign with my name on it. He said hello, asked how we were and took us on our way to the hostel. After we checked in to our room at noon, we were further notified that all new guests could receive 20 minute complimentary Khmer massages all one hour massages were only $3 USD!

Angkor Wat -- hot air balloon in the background

On our first day we actually took a Khmer cooking class since we wanted to do something low-key and start checking out temples the next day. We went to Le Tigre de Papier which is a Khmer restaurant run by a number of women and our cooking teacher, Sopia taught us to make prawn salad, Khmer curry, spring rolls, Amok curry and mango sticky rice with jack fruit! The mango sticky rice with jackfruit was my favourite dish and all weekend I craved it! (Most of us from the Western world have probably never had jackfruit but it is the BEST fruit ever! If you are ever in Asia, make sure to try it!) After our cooking class, we went back to the hostel for a siesta and in the evening we checked out the night market and Pub Street.

mango sticky rice with jackfruit

On our second day we visited Angkor Wat,  Angkor Thom, Victory Gate, Thommanom, Chau Say Thevoda, Ta Keo, Ta Prom, Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang and Prasat Kravan. Angkor Wat surprisingly wasn’t my favourite temple. Although it is huge in size and absolutely incredible in terms of architecture and design, the fact that it was so touristy didn’t make it my favourite. I absolutely loved the Bayon at Angkor Thom, this is the temple where there are apparently over 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara carved in to the stone. I also really enjoyed Ta Prohm, this is where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm was built in the 12th century and the entire complex is full of massive trees with roots that look like they are strangling the stone.  I could probably sit here and give you some detailed information on each temple but that would probably bore you so I will only discuss my top favourites 🙂

Bayon at Angkor Thom

On our third day we visited Banteay Srei, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan and the North Gate of Angkor Thom. Banteay Srei was my favourite temple on this tour — although it was not impressive in terms of size, it is absolutely incredible in terms of the elaborate carvings that surround the doors and hall ways and the pink sandstone that it is made of. While we were going from temple to temple, we were usually bombarded with small kids trying to sell us trinkets, bracelets or postcards. It was really sad to see but it is a harsh reality for many of the kids in Cambodia. One particularly interesting story that I would like to share is about a little boy who stopped us as we were abotu to get out of our tuk-tuk. The boy spoke extremely good English (much to our surprise) and he asked us where we were from. My friend replied saying we were from Canada. The boy then asked if we had any spare Canadian change so my friend reached into his wallet to see if he had any quarters but he only had Singaporean change. So he handed the boy a Singaporean 20 cent coin. The boy then took out two Canadian quarters and asked us if this was Canadian money and when we confirmed with him that it was, he asked if we could give him $1 USD in exchange for the 50 cents Canadian. Immediately we understood what he was trying to do. This little boy would collect spare change from foreigners and then ask foreigners to give him USD in exchange for the change (since Cambodia prefers to take USD because $1 USD = 4000 Cambodian Riel which can go a LONG way in Cambodia). We were extremely surprised by how clever this little boy actually was.

Banteay Srei

On our last day in Cambodia we went to Kampong Pluk which is a floating village communtiy approximately 1 hour outside of Siem Reap. Although there was not much to see except houses built on stilts, it was a hard reality to see that this is life for majority of the Cambodian population. All of the houses were made from sticks and hay and they rose many metres above the ground (due to the heavy rain fall). Kampong Pluk truly depicted a peasant lifestyle in rural Cambodia.

Kampong Pluk

Despite having survived a mass genocide, years of war and famine, Cambodians possess such an incredible amount of optimism that you can’t leave Cambodia without having an enormous amount of respect and affection for these people.
Thus far, I would have to say Cambodia was just an incredible experience. All of the temples only make a sliver of what makes Cambodia so special. It is honestly, the culture and the people that will leave a lasting impression.

Get ready for Bangkok

1 04 2010

Buckle your seat belts and hold on tight (to your wallet that is) when you get into Bangkok! And I mean both of those phrases quite literally (lol). Bangkok is a city full of skyscrapers and malls yet the city is adorned with ancient temples and simple street stalls. I would have to say that Bangkok is probably one of my favourite cities in the world…read below and you’ll find out why.

view from our boat

On our first day in Bangkok we were excited to venture out into the streets and begin exploring! Our day started off trying to find our way to Wat Pho which is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok dating from the 16th century. However we began running into a problem — we couldn’t actually find the temple! Before we left our hostel, we asked the front desk staff how far away Wat Pho was and they told us it was only a 15-20 minute walk so we started walking. As we were walking down the street, we stopped to ask someone for directions and they told us “Wat Pho,  Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew closed — no go today — only go after 1 pm.” Immediately we got confused and began wondering why the front desk staff at our hostel didn’t notify us that it was closed until 1pm. Then I remembered reading something about this in my Lonely Planet guidebook. The guidebook actually said that if you ever ask someone for directions in Bangkok, they will likely tell you that the attraction you are trying to visit is closed and they will recommend that you go visit something else (i.e. go to a shop or something because the person will  get a commission out of it). Even though I had read about this scam, I was still a little bit skeptical as I had heard it was a Buddhist holiday not too long ago and I was unsure how long Buddhist holidays lasted. So being the gullible farangs (Thai word for tourists) that we were, we fell into this trap and we decided to follow the man’s recommendation to go to the floating market in Bangkok. So we walked and walked and finally found a harbor where we took a boat tour around Bangkok. When we got off the boat, some man tried telling us that there was a “landing fee” for when you got off the boat, since we knew this was a scam we ignored him and walked away while he threatened to call the police on us.

Buddhas at Wat Pho

When we got off the boat, we started walking and actually ended up near the area that Wat Pho was located so we decided to follow our intuition and the map and just go straight there without asking anyone for directions. When we got to Wat Pho we were stunned by the beauty and detail of this temple. Every single part of the temple was adorned with carvings or golden buddhas. Wat Pho actually houses the country’s largest reclining buddha that is 46m long and 15m high. The reclining buddha is suppose to illustrate the passing of the buddha into final nirvana.

Reclining Buddha

Wat Phra Kaew

The next day we made it out to the Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Since you must cover up your arms and legs, we borrowed traditional Thai clothing from the temple (hence my funny looking outfit). Wat Phra Kaew is known to be The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (you aren’t allowed to take photos of it so I don’t actually have a photo of it). According to Lonely Planet, the Emerald Buddha is actually made of jasper and it was transported all the way from northern Thailand where it was hidden inside a layer of stucco. We also saw a small model of Angkor Wat in this temple which was kind of cool especially considering the years of animosity between the Thai and Cambodians.

Next we saw the Grand Palace which use to be the residence of the royal family. Today the Grand Palace is used by the king only for certain ceremonial occasions such as Coronation Day. Interestingly enough, the Grand Palace has a mix of European and Thai architecture which gives it a unique architectural design.

Grand Palace

That same evening we went to Khao San Road night market which is a backpacker hot spot and the night market sells everything (literally everything) from fake Ray Bans to useless little trinkets to $5.50 CAD Thai massages (180 THB to be exact). I would have to say that the Thai food and the Thai massages were among my top favourite things to do in Thailand. On our first day we ate a delicious green curry at a restaurant just across from Wat Pho!

On our third day in Bangkok we visited the ancient city of Ayuthaya which use to be the former capital of Thailand. From 1350-1767 Ayuthaya was the cultural centre and trading hub of Thailand however it was a city that was constantly under battle. Much of the architecture and religious treasures were looted by the Burmese and hence, the capital of Thailand moved to Bangkok. Now what is actually left of Ayuthaya is basically ancient ruins from a very long time ago. We visited so many temples that I can’t recall them all by name but I do remember one of the most interesting things we saw was the head of a sandstone buddha in a tree. Apparently the body of the buddha has disappeared but all that remains is the head which is surrounded by roots of a tree. (see below)

Sandstone buddha

Now these are only some of the major recounts of my time in Bangkok. If I sat here and shared all the things I did in Bangkok, I think this would easily turn into a novel. The food was incredible and the shopping was among the most fun I have ever had (including the bargaining!) Among my favourite stories from Thailand was when me and my 6 friends decided that we didn’t want to pay for 2 cabs but instead it would be cheaper if we found 1 cab that would take 7 people. At the cost of only 100 or 150 THB (can’t recall the exact amount) we each paid the rough equivalent of 33 cents for our cab back home haha lol. But we suffered an extremely tight and uncomfortable situation with 5 people in the backseat and 2 people in the front seat.

However I can tell you that Bangkok is one crazy city! It is full of tuk tuk’s that try to scam you, taxi drivers that try to scam you, tailors that try to scam you and even ping pong shows that try to scam you — basically everyone is trying to scam you. To the Thai, tourists are like walking ATM’s but all you can do is exercise extreme caution and hope for the best. There just ain’t no city like Bangkok 😉

Other buildings around Grand Palace

Krabi, Thailand

30 03 2010

As I parted ways with the ever so beautiful Phi Phi Island, I was excited and keen to see Krabi. It was about a 4-6 hour ferry ride to Krabi and when we finally arrived the scene seemed plain, boring and there was nothing that even came close to Phi Phi. However I remembered that my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook saying that the town of Krabi is a great jumping-off point for all the epically beautiful islands so I knew to hold any judgement until we actually got into town. We stayed near Ao Nang which is suppose to be the furthest west beach. Ao Nang is full of tourist shops and the town actually reminds you of beach towns back home than a tropical beach paradise. When we arrived at our guesthouse we were in awe at the fact that we had air-conditioning, a proper shower and an incredibly nice and clean room! Our accommodations back at Phi Phi was pretty much a….rut (to be frank!). Since Phi Phi is very touristy, the price of a good guesthouse or hotel is incredibly expensive but since Krabi isn’t as touristy, you can get a really nice guesthouse at a very affordable price.

Ao Nang

On our first day we headed over to the beach where we took a boat taxi to Railay Beach and we rented kayaks and went kayaking for much of the evening. Kayaking was a lot of fun especially since we encountered so many waves that would push us back and soak us. On our second day in Krabi we decided to go on a “jungle trekking” tour where we would go elephant trekking, visit natural hot springs, go to the Emerald Pool and see the Tiger Temple Cave.

Me riding Pooey, my elephant

Elephant trekking was by far, one of my favourite experiences. My friend Bonita and I shared a female elephant named Pooey. She was slow and old but so cute and lovable! We got a chance to feed the elephants bananas as well as they grabbed them with their trunks. When I got a chance to sit on the elephant, its skin was really rough and prickly which felt so weird on your skin! After elephant trekking, we went to go see natural mineral water hot springs. The springs were actually a temperature of almost 38 degrees and they were really nice and relaxing to step into.

Natural hot springs

By this time, it was noon and we were being served lunch at a small outdoor restaurant near the hot springs. We had some amazing food here such as coconut curry which was delicious! After lunch we headed over to the Emerald Pool (it’s called the Emerald Pool because it is a natural pool with emerald colour water). Our last adventure of the day was the Tiger Cave Temple. Now at this temple is a mountain that has 1,237 that will take you to the top. My friend and I began venturing to the top and we noticed that the stairs started to get more and more narrow which was pretty frightening but we continued trekking it up. But then something really scary happened…my friend was attacked by a monkey! My friend had been carrying a plastic bag containing some lozenges for her sore throat, her camera case and a water bottle. The monkey just went up to her and leashed on to the plastic bag which was around her wrist. My friend immediately let the bag go and monkey ripped into the bag and tore open any and everything he could find in hopes of food. It was here that me and my friend got extremely startled and scared and we noticed that the monkeys were following us up! When we got to about the 300th step, we decided enough was enough with these crazy monkeys and we headed back down. As we waited for our friends at the bottom of the mountain, we noticed that the monkeys attacked any human with food! So the lesson for the day…try to feed monkeys regularly otherwise they will attack you!

1237 steps to the top of the mountain

While my friend and I were waiting for the others we noticed an elderly man running up the stairs to the top of the mountain. Our tour guide explained to us that this elderly Caucasian man actually lives in Thailand and he runs up to the top of the mountain twice a day and he has even learnt to speak Thai! We finally arrived back at our guesthouse at approximately 6PM and we ended our time in Krabi by venturing out in to the night market.

View from the top of the mountain (borrowed from Zami's camera)

Phi Phi…you are beautiful

29 03 2010

After one night in Patong Beach (which was more than enough!) we headed over to Phi Phi Island (pronounced Pee-Pee). Now Phi Phi Island is known to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (actually I think they are the most beautiful beaches). When we first arrived, it was like walking into an image from a postcard. Words cannot describe how incredibly picture perfect the island(s) are. Perfect limestone, the whitest sand and the clearest water…take a look.

Phi Phi Island

The first day, everyone was caught up with excitement! The weather must have been easily 39 degrees and the sand was almost burning hot! We explored the island, I did some shopping for a full sleeves cotton shirt and a hat to wear (and I never wear hats). We took a small 3 hour boat tour to the surrounding islands around Phi Phi Don. We visited  Pi Leh Bay where I went snorkelling in ocean water for the first time in my life!! It was such an incredible experience! This had to have been the most beautiful coral I have ever seen! The fish were all different shapes and sizes as well. In short…it basically looked like a scene from National Geographic 🙂 On the same boat tour we saw Viking Cave and a number of other smaller beaches.


On our second day in Phi Phi, we decided to do a full day tour around all the small islands and beaches surrounding Phi Phi. We visited Monkey Beach (where there are usually funny stories about monkeys attacking tourists but unfortunately we saw no monkeys 😦 ), Viking Cave, Loh Dalum Bay, Bamboo Island, Monkey Bay and the most famous island of all…Maya Bay! If you are unable to recall where you heard of Maya Bay, well remember the old Leonardo DiCaprio film from 2000 called The Beach? Well they actually shot the movie on this very island! And yes, it is just as beautiful as they say it is. The beach is basically surrounded by limestone in a u-shape making for a picture perfect image. On our way back to the main island we were fortunate enough to witness dolphins swimming in the ocean (in their natural habitat!)

Dolphins Swimming

The last thing I wanted to share about my trip to Phi Phi was the food. I think I had some of the best meals I have ever ate in my life while I was in Thailand. Of course, you can’t go to Thailand without eating some Pad Thai but my favourite dishes were the green curry, the red curry and the coconut curry! The food was just so delicious (but very expensive on Phi Phi in terms of Asian standards). Phi Phi is also known to have a great life with lots of crazy beach parties and fire dance shows as well. My friends and I actually watched an entire dance show and some of the people performing were little kids, probably not older than 11 or 12 who did a  great job putting on rings of fire dance shows.

To sum up, if you are ever in Thailand, a must-see is Phi Phi island. If you’ve ever wondered what paradise looks like…now you know 😉

Maya Bay