Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand’s capital is very hectic; enough said. The city was a great place to do some shopping and experience Western conveniences after spending one month “in the country.”

The city’s spectacular temples, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew are worth visiting. The temples have ornate chedis (conical-shaped structures). One great way to experience the sights is to take a ferry, the “Chao Phraya River Express.”

Juxtaposing temples are modern, multistoried shopping malls, many next to each other and containing identical stores! These malls are interconnected by a elevated walkway in the Siam Square area.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was determined to trek in northern Thailand for that was my reason for enduring a rough 14-hour overnight bus ride from Luang Prabang, Laos (it was another sleepless night). Thus, I headed to Chiang Mai after one day in Chiang Rai.

Chiang Mai is touristy, but much calmer than I expected. Besides the numerous temples, there were massage parlors, and Thai cooking schools. And most of the Thai people are so friendly, not to mention the cheap food and accommodation (cheaper than Laos). No wonder why people keep flocking to Thailand! This is a town that I could spend a week living during my next visit!

I did end up joining a touristy activities tour. Basically, in the span of a day, I went trekking to a waterfall, rode an elephant, visited hill tribes and went bamboo rafting. There were only three of us on my tour; I assume Lonely Planet’s negative implication of these touristy tours deterred many backpackers from joining. I actually enjoyed my tour as my Thai guide displayed excellent customer service and knowledge of the area (unlike the guides in Vietnam).

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand, is a quite, viable town that is used as a base for trekking. I came to specifically to do that but was unable to find enough travelers to form a group.

However, the town was pleasant enough to stroll around and I got my taste of the dozens of Thai temples. I also sampled Thai food in Thailand for the first time. This included curry noodle soup and green curry. Yum!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi, Laos

Nong Khiaw is a town about four hours’ drive north of Luang Prabang. The picturesque town is situated on the Nam Ou River, surrounded by peaks. I was there only to take a one-hour boat ride to Muang Ngoi. Along the way, I witnessed water buffaloes, villagers fishing and rowing and many limestone peaks.

Muang Ngoi is a tranquil village of a few hundred people on the banks of the Nam Ou River. The village, similar to the Four Thousand Islands, offers bungalows with either an enclosed bathroom or an outhouse. Even with the tourist boom, Muang Ngoi has managed to retain its simplicity, with no Internet, no hot water (only freezing cold showers) and electricity only for three hours in the evening.

I really enjoyed the river and mountain scenery of Muang Ngoi. I was able to go on a day trek to a cave and to Ban Na village. (I was glad I did this as I dislike guided hikes.) On the way, I walked along dry rice paddies and was in a valley surrounded by peaks. It was indeed very relaxing! The village itself was typical of the area, with wooden and straw huts on stilts. The people were dressed ordinarily and not in their ethnic garb (which seems to be only for the tourists).

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, is Laos’ most touristy destination. The city is scenically located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is surrounded by mountains. The city also boasts diverse architecture, primarily the French colonial and Lao wooden styles.

Luang Prabang is famous as the imperial capital of Laos. The National Museum (formerly the National Palace) is situated there, with the Pha Bang, the gold Buddha statue that the town is name after, housed inside. There are also numerous temples, or wats.

One highlight of the city is witnessing the morning alms procession by the monks. Every morning, around 6:30am, groups of monks clad in orange robes would march from their temples around a couple blocks to collect alms from people. These alms primarily include sticky rice and sometimes bananas and candy (though the latter is usually thrown out of the alms bowl by the monks to the children). This daily march has turned into a “tourist show” with many people snapping photos and even paying for the privilege of sitting on a mat and handing out rice to the monks.

Similar to what I observed in Vientiane, there were more tourists than locals! It also seems like the French influence is the strongest in this city. This can be proven through the number of French restaurants, cafes, signs and architecture that pervades the city. Because of this, many tourists find it comforting to find Western fare and end up staying longer than they had planned.

Many of the guesthouses in Luang Prabang have undergone renovation and are now posh B&Bs. This is unfortunate as backpackers are being priced out of Luang Prabang. I believe that in 10 years’ time, the city will turn into a retirees’ village, with only the wealthy able to afford staying there.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vientiane, Laos

From Pakse, I took a ten-hour “VIP” sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I was glad that I could lie down (even though it was a narrow bed), but the journey was cold and bumpy. We were served snacks and drinks though, a cut above the Vietnamese buses.

I arrived in Vientiane after the conclusion of the 25th Southeast Asian Games and thus I did not expect prices to be cheap. I was right as I struggled to find an available room for less than $10. (Keep in mind that rooms could be easily found costing $5 two years ago, according to the guidebook.) It was also hard to find a meal for less than $1, even in the street stalls (unlike in Vietnam). Bus prices in Laos were double those in Vietnam. Thus, Laos has been sticker shock for me, as I, like many others, are basing prices from the guidebook.

These days in Vientiane, tourists outnumber locals. I believe it is great that development money is pouring into Laos and the people are improving their lives. However, I am wary of Westernization as it makes the world a bit homogeneous. It also introduces unhealthy elements into people’s lives, such as over consumption and the obsession with money. What was once the exotic, “untouched” Laos ten years ago is now a very touristy country. I guess there are very few places in the world that are not turning into “Disneyland”.

Vientiane, just like the rest of Laos, is very sedate (no honking!). The city has a few famous sights, such as Pha That Luang, the golden stupa that is the symbol of Laos; and Patuxai, a pseudo Asian-style Arch de Triomphe.

One interesting observation is that French influence is very visible (the country was once colonized by France). Street and building signs are still in French. There are a good number of French restaurants and bakeries. And of course, there are many French tourists (for once outnumbering the British)!

My highlight in Vientiane (I was bored after my first out of two days there) was dining in a makeshift restaurant by the Mekong River. During the day, there is nothing but construction on the shore. However, at night, the place comes alive with people setting up barbeque and fruit stands, along with tables and chairs. I treated myself to a Chinese-style hotpot by the Mekong. It was delicious and commanded the best view of any street dining I have ever had!

Pakse, Laos

Pakse is a town in southern Laos that was a bus connection point for me. It was my first visit to a Lao town and I was surprised by what I observed.

Unlike most (if not all) countries in Southeast Asia, Laos is relatively calm. There are few people, sidewalks are clear for pedestrians and there is no honking. Honking is practically the only sound one will hear in other Southeast Asian countries. Laos is so quiet!

Pakse itself does not have many attractions (most of the highlights in Laos are in the countryside). There are a few notable temples in the Burmese style. I did, however, spot many monks leaving their biological sciences class. Before they left, they had to swept the floor!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Four Thousand Islands, Laos

To get from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Four Thousand Islands, Laos, I had to travel by bus, during the day, for 12 hours. It was a grueling ride through the flat expanse of Cambodia. Arriving at this “unofficial” border crossing, everyone had to pay a US$1 admin fee to the Cambodian officials and a US$2 admin fee to the Laotian officials. These admin fees are akin to bribes.

I immediately fell in love with the Four Thousand Islands, an inland archipelago near the Laos-Cambodia border. I arrived during sunset, with its stunning display of colors and reflections. The place was very tranquil, with villagers fishing or picking fruit. In fact, the islands did not have electricity until last year!

I stayed on an island called Don Det and rented a bungalow with a hammock on the porch for only US$2.50 per night! This was a very relaxing way to vacation and I can understand why this place has become touristy these past 10 years.

On my only full day there, I spent some time walking along the water on Don Det. I spotted some water buffaloes “swimming”. There were plenty of stilt homes where the locals live. At a certain point, I crossed the French-built bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon. This island is famous for its waterfalls and dolphins. I only saw the former, an amazing bunch of cascading water. I savored the view while sipping a coconut.

For food, I ate fried noodles, fried rice and laap, a Laotian salad with meat (either fish, chicken, beef or pork) with basil leaves, bean sprouts, and nuts. I drank lots of fruit shakes; these proved to be refreshing on a sweltering “winter” day.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The supposedly five-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap turned out to be seven hours. This was due to frequent 20-minute breaks, poor roads and a 30-minute delayed start because the driver wanted every seat to be filled. Bus journeys in Southeast Asia can be so tiresome!

Siem Reap is the gateway to the Temples of Angkor, a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex that is one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements. I spent a very full day visiting the main temples, hiring a tuk tuk driver to take me around. The complex is extremely tourist-friendly, with food and beverage stalls everywhere! It is difficult to describe the grandeur of the Temples of Angkor; it probably exceeds all the superlatives available.

I started my visit with Preah Bakeng (on a hill) for sunrise. On top of the temple, I could see vast expanses of forest. Then it was on to Bayon in Angkor Thom, my favorite temple. This complex is known for the gigantic face of a god carved in stone. I was amazed at the intricate details of gods, people and words that were carved all over the place. Another noticeable temple is Ta Prohm, the site of the filming of the movie Tomb Raider. This temple has a rough feel, as many tree roots have surrounded many of the doorways.

The grandest temple of all is none other than Angkor Wat. This complex is surrounded by forest, lawns and water, something akin to a palace. Angkor Wat has three levels, of which the highest one was unfortunately closed for restoration. Inside the temple are gigantic Buddha statues, elaborate friezes and empty pools.

I will definitely be back to the Temples of Angkor, for it is a magical place. In fact, I will be back in Cambodia, as I did not spend enough time there. Even though the country is stifling hot, even in December, the people there touched my heart. They are a very resilient, industrious and friendly people. They have put their painful history behind them and are working hard to advance their lives. One example is the widespread knowledge of English (unlike in Vietnam). Furthermore, even the hassling of tourists is polite, always with “sir” or “ma’am”.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was time to leave the hassling of Vietnam behind and head to Cambodia. I boarded a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was impressed with the wide leg room and excellent customer service on this bus (way better than the service on Vietnamese tourist buses). The attendant even filled in the Cambodian visa form for me, ensuring a seamless border crossing.

Phnom Penh was chaotic! People who everywhere, hawking goods. Like Vietnam, motorcycles and makeshift cafes took over sidewalks. Noticeable differences include the pervasiveness of tuk tuks (motorcycle-pulled-carriage) and litter.

As soon as I got off the bus from Saigon, I was harassed by hotel and motorcycle touts. Along with travelers Ivy (from Laos) and Anh (from Vietnam), we found a hotel and explored the city together. Sights in Phnom Penh include the markets, Wat Phnom (Khmer-style temple after which the city is named), Independence Monument, National Museum and the National Palace (with its temples). A stroll along the Mekong River waterfront is also an enjoyable experience.

My most profound experience in Phnom Penh, though, had to be the visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school--turned-prison that was used by the Khmer Rouge to torture people. The Khmer Rouge were a group of radical Marxists who terrorized Cambodians from 1975-1979. Basically, anyone who did not support their agrarian revolution were killed. These included innocent people such as teachers, doctors and intellectuals. The Khmer Rouge were finally driven from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, only to have the UN refuse recognition of the new government. The Cambodian government finally established a Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2006, eight years after the leader, Pol Pot, passed away.

Inside the museum were remnants of what appeared to be a concentration camp. There was a case full of clothes and a case full of skulls. In the courtyard, there were the gallows, used to hang prisoners. The classrooms were either torture rooms or prison cells. Each prisoner had a metal can, which served as his or her bathroom.

The photo exhibits were what touched me the most. It was very eerie to walk past thousands of photos of victims’ faces, before they were executed. In fact, it was sickening and inhumane that such injustice could be done to others. Another intriguing photo exhibit was put together by a Swede, one of the few foreigners allowed into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. His pictures each show his thoughts from 1978 (when he visited) and from 2008 (the year the exhibit was compiled). His opinions were very different, as he was a Marxist back in 1978.

Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, is the commercial heart of Vietnam. I liken the city to Shanghai, for it has a blend of historical and modern architecture.

I was expecting Saigon to be a cramped, chaotic city, similar to Hanoi. Saigon is filled with honking motorcycles and people and has bad air pollution. However, the city has wide boulevards and open spaces, making it less dense than Hanoi. Furthermore, the city has modern cafes, bars and restaurants for those who are tired of eating at street stalls. I was surprised at the number of modern hotels and skyscrapers in Saigon compared to Hanoi.

My time in Saigon was spent sightseeing and eating. I was lucky to finally have a local, my CS host Tuan, show me around. Tuan took me all over Saigon on his motorcycle. We visited French colonial buildings such as the Old Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and City Hall. We passed by the War Remnants Museum, with its U.S. tanks, helicopters and planes displayed outside. Tuan then led a tour of the Reunification Palace, the former presidential palace. He narrated the history of the building and was more knowledgeable than the other Vietnamese tour guides I have met! One unexpected place we visited was the expat neighborhood, a new development in south Saigon. I was again surprised to see Western-style apartments and homes in Saigon.

One of the highlights of my time in Saigon was the food! Tuan took me to street stalls and local restaurants. Among the items I tasted include self-wrap rolls (with veggies, pork, fish sauce), pork and egg rice, meat and spring rolls on rice noodles, veggie juice, and fruit shakes (plenty of these). I thank Tuan for showing me around, for I would probably not venture to these eateries on my own, or with other tourists.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is another central Vietnam city with a UNESCO world heritage old quarter. Unlike Hue, there are no city walls in Hoi An. However, there are more historical buildings here.

Hoi An is and will be my favorite Vietnamese city (I have yet to visit Saigon, but I doubt that I will fall in love with that city.). The old town, right beside a river, is absolutely charming. Inside, numerous Chinese temples stand side-by-side with French style yellow buildings. Many of these buildings contain art galleries, souvenir shops and tailor shops. In fact, one can get a designer suit custom-made in Hoi An for a fraction of the cost elsewhere! One other notable structure is the pink Japanese Covered Bridge.

A stroll along the river on the opposite side of the old town is a must. On the river, I saw boat rowers wearing the traditional conical farmer hat. I also saw the reflection of the old town, the ultimate factor that made me fall in love with this city.

At this point in time, I am getting tired of the soup noodles and rice for breakfast. Most people eat noodles and rice throughout the day. Despite its French influence, there are few bakeries in Vietnam! The only places that sell baguettes (the only bread that they eat) are street stalls that sell Vietnamese sandwiches. I have seen most of the Western tourists eat baguettes--they must be getting tired of the rice and noodles too.

I spent only the afternoon in Hoi An. That evening, I embarked on a nearly 24-hour bus ride to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The first part of the journey was on a sleeper bus, where the seats reclined to a near flat bed. However, the bed was very narrow and short. Buses are slow in Vietnam; I find it ridiculous that it would take that long to travel 1,000 km.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue is a city in central Vietnam that has a UNESCO world heritage old town, enclosed within the walls of the Citadel. The city served as the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1802-1945, during the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty.

This was the first place where I experienced hotel touts. Basically, the moment a tourist bus stops, crowds of men would harass each tourist, asking them repeatedly if he/she wanted a moto taxi or hotel. If one walked away, one would be followed for a few seconds. Through a little persistence, I managed to escape from these touts.

Walking around Hue was relatively enjoyable. Like any Vietnamese city, there was honking and crowds, but not to the level experienced in Hanoi. Most of the old buildings are centered within the Forbidden City, an enclosed area within the Citadel. There, I saw gates, temples and palaces, all in the Chinese style. There were stone dragon and unicorn statues throughout the complex.

The unfortunate aspect was that many of these old buildings were under renovation when I visited; thus, they were not in their best appearance. Furthermore, most of the canals were so polluted and littered that algae was concentrated in them. It’s ironic that they named the river that flows through Hue, Perfume.

Lastly, it seems that most of the old town outside the Forbidden City was either destroyed or razed, as I saw mostly modern buildings with no aesthetic value in them.

One interesting observation I noted was in a supermarket (in fact, the only supermarket I have been into in Vietnam). There, baguettes were on sale and hordes of people were pushing and shoving each other in order to obtain as many baguettes as possible. At first I was wondering if there was a food shortage and then I realized that all of these people were probably going to resell these baguettes at a 50% profit.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, with its karst limestone formations jutting out of the water, is similar to Guilin, China. Unfortunately, I went on a rainy, overcast day.

I joined a day tour from Hanoi to Halong Bay. This was quite rushed, as I only got to spend 4 hours on a boat cruising the bay. Of this, about 2 hours were spent eating lunch (boat stationary) and waiting for the other people to kayak. The highlight was definitely admiring the dramatic scenery, quite appropriate for a painting or movie. I also enjoyed the one cave we toured. Inside, there were large stalagmites and stalactites and limestone shaped like creatures.

Lastly, my camera lens broke the day before, so this is the first place where I do not have pictures for. However, I will most likely purchase another one when I get back to Hanoi.

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa is a town in the northern hills of Vietnam, surrounded by hill tribes. This town is very touristy and the biggest moneymaker are trekking tours to the tribal villages. I originally wanted to take a train there and arrange for my own tour to the villages, but decided that it was worth a few extra dollars to start the tour in Hanoi, as I was spending too much time comparing and bargaining for tours.

The overnight soft sleeper train to Lao Cai was very comfortable. However, once I got to Lao Cai, I had to take a minibus to Sapa. Everyone on the bus waited 45 minutes as the bus driver would not head to Sapa until ever seat was taken. What an inefficient and third world practice!

Sapa itself is not a very attractive town. It’s just a smaller version of Hanoi with honking and touts everywhere. Just like Hanoi, there is no architectural uniformity. Unfortunately, the attractive buildings are covered up with huge, ugly signs.

The tour I signed up for was a 2 day/1 night home-stay and trekking tour. I enjoyed the food, the scenery and the walks. I saw plenty of rice terraces, villagers in traditional attire and water buffalo. This was great despite the misty and overcast conditions.

However, there were certain aspects that could be improved. First, I felt that there was no value for money. We only trekked for 3 hours the first day and 2 hours the second day. I should have signed up for the 1 day tour! The guide simply wanted us to hurry along so that she could have free time. Second, the guide did not explain much about the various tribal customs and lifestyle. The walks were designed so that women in colorful attire would walk with us and then harass us to buy their crafts until we would cave in. Third, there was no interaction with the family at the home-stay. In fact, it felt more like a hostel. Hence, I am quite disappointed. I am never a person to join tours, but I realize that it would be difficult to find my way back from the villages if I did not.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was a rude awakening to this Southeast Asian country. The scene in the city was nothing similar to the surrounding rice fields that dot the surroundings.

After my plane landed, it took me over 30 mins, perhaps much more, to clear immigration. I can’t remember the last time it took me this long to get through. After I cleared customs, I knew I would be harassed by taxi drivers, a scene all too familiar in third world countries. Ignoring them, I went to take the airport shuttle to the city center. This shuttle had no official price, as the numbers had been scratched off the sign. How unscrupulous!

The scene in the city was chaotic and overwhelming. Everywhere, there were motorcycles and people. In fact, there were so many motorcycles parked on sidewalks and so many people sitting on stools on the sidewalks that one simply had to walk on the streets. There was constant noise pollution in the form of honking and smog filled the air. Crossing the street was an adventure each time as one had to continually dodge motorbikes.

Everyone was trying to make money off tourists. This is very easy due to the fact that prices are never posted for anything, making bargaining a must. Men would constantly gesture tourists over for a motorcycle taxi ride. Sellers would hawk their goods. Travel agencies would copy reputable agencies’ names, confusing the tourists. Travel agents would try to sell overpriced tours, saying whatever the tourist wanted to here but not necessarily delivering on his/her words. There is very little customer service in poor countries like Vietnam.

Thus, Hanoi was a shock to me. I did not enjoy the city as much as I thought I would. However, I did have a few highlights, including the water puppet show and the food. The water puppet show is one where puppets performed on a pool of water, with an accompanying band playing Vietnamese music. It was quite a cultural experience! As for the food, it was very similar to Chinese food, with the main staple being rice, accompanied with tofu, vegetable and meat dishes. I also tasted the famous pho (beef soup noodles) and nem (spring rolls).

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is a dynamic and modern capital. I came for two reasons--the delicious food and the fact that my flights connected there.

As my CS host Mike told me, eating is a national pastime. It didn’t take me long to witness and experience this hobby. The ethnic diversity of Malaysia, with its Chinese, Indian and Malay populations, contributes to its culinary greatness. On my first night, Mike took me to a local Chinese outdoor food court. There were stalls selling wonton noodles, dim sum, fried noodles, fried rice and other items. We each drank a refreshing coconut. To fill our stomachs, we savored chicken and beef satay (skewers dipped in peanut sauce); and curry laksa (noodles with tofu and meat in a curry broth). Other foods and drinks I sampled include nasi lemak (rice with curry anchovies wrapped in a banana leaf), roti canai (thin, flaky Indian flatbread), banana leaf rice (rice with veggies, dhal and curry laid out on a banana leaf; Indian), char key teow (thick noodles with prawns, eggs and shellfish), sugarcane juice and long-an juice (fruit). I simply ate and ate as everything was scrumptious!

The second reason I came to KL was due to my Air Asia flights. Air Asia is the biggest budget carrier in Southeast Asia with flights to many destinations. The airline is based in KL and thus many travelers end up visiting KL even though it was not there original plan. The airline is strictly no frills--nothing is free (not even water). To keep ticket prices low, the airline does not allow passengers to consume their own food or drink; the airline limits checked bags to 15kg; the airline has seats narrower than usual. I think that it is bearable to fly with Air Asia for a few hours. However, my eight-hour flight from the Gold Coast (in Australia) to KL was unbearable, mainly due to the narrow seats. I felt squished!

As for sightseeing, the most prominent landmark in KL is the Petronas Twin Towers, featured in the film Entrapment. My CS host Mike took me on a nighttime tour of KL on his motorcycle. I got the opportunity to view the magnificently lit towers. The next morning, I waited in line for one hour before obtaining a ticket to the twin towers’ sky bridge, which is on the 41st floor (the total number of floors is 88). Other attractions include the National Mosque. Chinatown, Little India and Merdeka (Independence) Square.

Byron Bay, Australia

For my last stop in Australia, I decided to cross into New South Wales state and visit Bryon Bay, home of the easternmost point in Australia.

Byron Bay is known for surfing, art and is alternative lifestyle. The latter includes yoga, meditation and organic food. When I visited, the town was packed due to schoolies week, a period of debauchery and drunkenness for graduating high school seniors.

My highlight of my stay was the hike around Cape Byron. There, I was able to hike through coastal rainforest while at the same time admiring the rocky coastline and pristine beaches. The path took me to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which is near Australia’s most easterly point.

At this point, I am ready to move onto Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia. I enjoyed my time in Australia, but am a bit “beached out.” I believe good things are best enjoyed sparingly. Australia has the world’s most beautiful beaches and scenery, but is culturally devoid, just like the U.S. I am ready for a unique cultural experience in Southeast Asia!

Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane, the largest city in Queensland, is a modern Western city with many contemporary skyscrapers and apartment blocks lining its river. The city surprisingly (to me) is very international, with a healthy mix of Asians, Europeans and Africans. Brisbane is a hub for international students and working holidaymakers.

My highlights of Brisbane are actually outside the city. My CS host Nicola and I spent a Saturday morning bushwalking along the coast of North Stradbroke Island. There, we spotted two manta rays and a kangaroo. The beaches there were very white and the water, similar to Sydney’s had two shades of blue.

Another highlight was the visit to Daisy Hill Koala Centre. For the first time, I spotted koalas! The cute, cuddly creatures were very sedentary, preferring to eat eucalypt leaves while hanging onto branches.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fraser Island, Australia

Fraser Island, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the world’s largest sand island. I joined a two day/one night guided tour of the island, as people on self-drive tours frequently get stuck on the soft sand of the island (there are no paved roads on the island).

Fraser Island is amazing, teeming with flora, fauna and scenery. Highlights include Indian Head, a rocky point where one can spot manta rays, sea turtles and pods of sharks. We also visited the Maheno shipwreck, the Pinnacles (colored sandy outcrops) and Eli Creek, which flowed to the ocean.

We went on several rainforest walks and saw eucalyptus, fern and pine trees. We also spotted a giant lizard, huge spiders, a dingo (wild dog) and various birds.

My favorites were the two lakes we visited, Wabby and MacKenzie. Lake Wabby is a green freshwater lake. One can hike up the Hammerstone Sandblow (sand dune) and get a birds-eye view of Lake Wabby. Lake MacKenzie is also a freshwater lake, but with two shades of blue water and white sand. The beach there reminded me of Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island.

Mon Repos Conservation Area, Australia

I got the unique opportunity to visit Mon Repos Conservation Area, a turtle rookery and beach, with my CS host Kathy and her daughter Shari. We were there on a pleasant November evening, the start of the turtle nesting season.

We waited for approximately two hours in the dark before a giant loggerhead turtle came ashore and slowly made her way to a high area of sand. She then dug a hole a few feet deep and laid 123 eggs! Then, she carefully covered her nesting area. The rangers measured her before letting us take photos. Lastly, she slowly made her way back to the ocean. She will be back three more times this nesting season (until January). Her eggs will take around eight weeks to hatch.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Whitsunday Islands, Australia

I spent four of the best days of my life on a sailing trip around the “I-ran-out-of-superlatives-to describe” Whitsunday Islands on the Queensland coast of Australia, in between Cairns and Brisbane. In fact, with all the places I have traveled to, I rate the Whitsunday Islands on my “top ten list”.

Why? Well, imagine sunny weather, cool breezes, glacial-blue waters and 74 welcoming islands. Top that off with warm water temperatures and coral reef and one has got a recipe for paradise. The coral reef there is a fringe reef while not technically part of the main Great Barrier Reef, was far more superior to it. For the first time in while, I saw vibrant, colorful coral and schools of multi-colored fish. My highlights include swimming amongst schools of fish and observing the color changes of the fish as the sunlight shone at different angles. I also observed a stingray, turtle and dolphins! Moreover, I got the chance to observe large fish in action as I fed them bread. Lastly, my CS host Joe caught a dead toadfish (poisonous to eat, though).

The trip itself was amazing. There were the six of us--me; my host and caretaker of the boat (Oceania) Joe; Mark, an Aussie; Maura, an Italian CSer; and Jane and Fran, a pair of German twins. We sailed on the Oceania, a 52-foot sailboat. I played skipper for part of the trip, steering us to safety. Each day, we would go for a swim, a snorkel and an R&R session on the deck. I especially enjoyed sleeping on the deck with the cool breeze brushing against my face, while gazing at a sky blanketed with stars. Then in the morning, I would wake up to the most beautiful sunrise and be surrounded by the cleanest water in this world.

One very special place in the Whitsundays is Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. This is perhaps the world’s longest and whitest beach. The silica-derived sand was so soft and pure, providing a gorgeous contrast to the different blue hues of the water. We also hiked up a peak for unparalleled views of Whitehaven Beach, the sea and a lagoon with swirls of the white sand. This is probably one of the world’s “top ten views”.

En Route to Airlie Beach

My first intercity bus journey was a ten-hour ride from Cairns to Airlie Beach. I was envisioning a beautiful coastal drive but was surprised as the entire stretch was inland. It is surprising that even in a populated stretch of land such as the Queensland coast, there was no civilization for the most part between towns.

Cairns, Australia

Cairns is the tourist capital of the Great Barrier Reef. I was here to go snorkeling, mindful of the fact that the reef might cease to exist in a few decades.

Cairns is very touristy. Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, you name it and they are here. The only exception being Australians, who seemed to be in the minority. The city is geared for tourism not only to the Great Barrier Reef, but also to the nearby rainforests, Aboriginal parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

My main activity in Cairns was joining a day trip abroad a catamaran to the Outer Reef. It is a shame that one has to travel two hours away from Cairns in order to spot some undamaged coral. The trip was a full day but I only got to snorkel for about 1.5 hours, at two different reefs. I saw some colored coral, anemones and colored (blue, green, yellow) fish. However, I was disappointed at the lack of color amongst most of the coral, probably due to bleaching from pollution and global warming. Isn’t the Great Barrier Reef supposed to contain the best and brightest coral in the world?

One interesting observation I noticed while here (nothing related to the reef) is the ubiquitous traffic roundabouts. Thus, instead of traffic lights or stop signs, Australians prefer to utilize roundabouts at their junctions.

Sydney, Australia

Sydney is similar to San Diego, both in its sunny weather and pristine beaches. In fact, I felt that Sydney is more scenic due to its numerous coves and rocky coastline.

In my opinion, one should come to Sydney for its natural beauty and not for its architecture, sites or culture. Since Australia’s history is relatively brief, there isn’t a whole lot of historic buildings. Most of the old homes are 19th century outfits with porches and terraces. In terms of culture, Australia is very similar to the U.S. Thus, I was frankly a bit bored with what I saw in the city.

However, one aspect of Sydney that makes it interesting is its diversity. This truly is an international city, with various cuisines and languages. In particular, I noted the huge numbers of Chinese, Korean and Japanese people. Because of this, Sydney resembles a mini-London.

I spent most of my time in Sydney “bushwalking” or hiking along its coast with the companionship of some great CouchSurfers. It is amazing that one can find pristine nature a few minutes away from the CBD (central business district). On the Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach walk, I was able to admire the blue-green water (Sydney is approximately the same latitude as San Diego; I wonder why its waters are more turquoise and clear than SD’s), various coves and modern sculptures on display. On the Manly Scenic Walk, I found myself hiking in a forested pathway with views of the CBD, bays, ocean and headlands. I also spotted various birds and lizards. And all this was in the city! Lastly, my favorite bushwalk of them all was north of Sydney, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. There, several CouchSurfers and I hiked to a few headlands to admire views of both the ocean and the bay. We also spotted a few caves.

Two observations caught my attention. First, Australia (or at least Sydney) is pricier than I expected it to be. Prices here are on par or if not more expensive than that in the Euro zone. Of course, it does not help that the U.S. dollar is approaching parity with the Australian dollar. Price examples include over $4 for a gallon of milk (explain this to me as Australia is one of the largest dairy-producing countries in the world), at least $2/lb for any fruit, $10 for a sandwich and over $3 for a bus ride.

The second observation is concerning Sydney’s inefficient and user-unfriendly public transportation system. Sure, Sydney’s network of buses, trains and ferries is superior to that in most U.S. cities. However, it is inefficient in that there is no smart card that one can use on any transport, nothing like Hong Kong’s Octopus or London’s Oyster (in which the passenger can seamlessly swipe his/hard card over a reader without needing to know the fare beforehand). Thus, buses are frequently late due to passengers fumbling for change to pay the driver. Moreover, to complicate matters, the bus fare is dependent on the number of zones traveled, which means that one has to ask the bus driver for the fare (again a waste of time). Tickets with ten rides are sold, but unfortunately, these are only for travel in the same zone.

Lastly, I was very surprised at the number of European tourists in Australia. Sure, they are avoiding their winter, but in this economic climate, I was surprised at how many European youths were able to afford $25 and upward hostels and nights of partying in Sydney.

Hong Kong

Between Uruguay and Australia, it was great to make a pit stop in Hong Kong to visit my parents. I had not been back in a few years, so I played tourist by visiting some of the attractions.

One noticeable change is the large number of Western backpacker and adult tourists visiting Hong Kong. I used to rarely see foreigners in my neighborhood. This time tough, there were so many (and they were inside many of the Chinese restaurants too) that their presence hardly draws attention.

The city has also developed its tourist infrastructure. Signs indicating tourist hotspots are everywhere. A nightly sound-and-light show highlighting the harbor’s skyscrapers has been developed. So have trips to the outlying islands to hike the hills or explore the villages.

As a “tourist”, I visited the Peak, with its jaw-dropping views of Hong Kong island’s skyscrapers and Hong Kong Harbor. I also journeyed to the Big Buddha on Lantau island for the first time. Lastly, I joined the local CouchSurfing group walking the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, a path connecting several historical buildings in a neighborhood in the New Territories. I never expected to see old courtyard-style Chinese home and temples in Hong Kong!

And last but not least, I had my fill of scrumptious food, including dim sum, fried beef noodles, wonton soup noodles, steamed fish, egg tarts, mango pudding and sweet tofu. I am sure I will miss Chinese food once I am in Australia!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Uruguayan Elections 2009

My penultimate day in Uruguay was spent witnessing the Uruguayan elections, a once-in-five-year opportunity. At stake were the presidency, the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and two referendums (on whether to repeal the constitutional clause that protects the military dictatorship from being tried and whether to allow Uruguayans residing abroad to vote). As I mentioned earlier, this was a very exciting event, for all Uruguayans residing in the country are required to vote and thus people are very passionate about politics.

Having spent the past few weeks in Uruguay, I was well informed of which parties and candidates were running for the presidency, Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. I could probably identify the party colors since their flags are more ubiquitous than the Uruguayan flag. I have to admit that I could not wait for the elections to be over with as I was tired of all the campaign advertisements, both print and on TV; tired of people handing me campaign flyers (can you believe that they think I am Uruguayan?) and tired of the litter that these flyers generate.

On election day, the streets of Pocitos, the neighborhood where I was staying at, normally quiet, was filled with people. At the polling place, which is mostly in an academic institution, each person has to show his or her voter registration booklet or card and then enter an empty room filled with flyers. Inside, the voter would place his or her preferred party list (listing the senators and deputies in order of preference, as they vote along party lines), which is identical to the ubiquitous flyers handed out on the streets, and a flyer with “si”, if he or she supported the referendum, into an envelope. The voter would then exit the room and place the sealed envelope into the locked ballot box.

With my host family, I attended a huge post-election rally for the Frente Amplio (FA) party. The event was like a huge party, with fireworks, flags and food! I wish elections in the U.S. were this colorful. Unfortunately, it appeared that the FA was headed for a run-off at the end of November so I will not know the result for a while.

La Paloma and Cabo Polonio, Uruguay

I spent part of my last week in the department of Rocha, an area of Uruguay with Atlantic beaches. I visited two towns, La Paloma and Cabo Polonio.

My wonderful host in Montevideo, Aliusha, kindly recommended that I stay at her family’s cottage in La Paloma (which literally means “the dove”). I took her offer and was pleasantly surprised that the cottage had views of the ocean and was only two blocks from the beach!

La Paloma is a beach town that is very rustic, unlike its glitzy, commercialized counterpart, Punta del Este. In fact, the town is surrounded by forests and cattle (e.g., cows, horses) were grazing outside my cottage! The town gets very crowded during the summer but very empty during the rest of the year. I happened to visit during their “down time,” which was great as I got miles and miles of beach to myself. There was not a single soul in sight! I was surprised at how empty the town was. In fact, there seemed to be barely any locals around. Everyone who was there seemed to be busy building homes, hopefully ready for the coming summer.

The other town I visited in Rocha was Cabo Polonio. This town next to the beach is so remote that people have to take 4WDs to enter. The town is famous for two things--seals and sand dunes. The dunes were nowhere as large and impressive as those in Namibia, but were nevertheless aesthetically pleasing when juxtaposed to the ocean. Upon leaving, I was very lucky to secure a ride from the 4WD drop-off point (by the highway) back to La Paloma, courtesy of traveling Spaniards. Otherwise, I would have had to wait over an hour on the highway. This area is so empty (the beach towns are surrounded by farmland) that hitchhiking did not seem feasible.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Canelones, Uruguay

I spent a Sunday afternoon at the country home of Mauro’s parents, located in Canelones Department, adjacent to Montevideo. The home is located in parts of Uruguay’s wine country.

The visit was amazing! The home is actually part of a farm filled with cows, sheep, ducks, chickens, swans and a peacock. The most amazing sight was when the peacock opened up its feathers in order to attract a mate. Unfortunately, this did not work.

The home is surrounded by a large grassy field, which I enjoyed lying on. There were numerous trees and wildflowers. These included trees that bear oranges, lemons and figs. At the end of the estate is the River Santa Lucia, perfect for a dip on a hot day.

As for the lunch, it was scrumptious! We savored asado (steak), chorizo and the salivary glands of cows, all cooked on the outdoor grill! Furthermore, there was baked Roquefort cheese and an assortment of vegetables. We finished the meal with ice cream topped with strawberries in Kirsch liquor. Yum!!!


Carnaval in Uruguay may not be as famous as Brazil’s, but I believe it is more interesting. This event takes place for about 40 days, from late January to the end of February.

Besides the colorful dresses, hats and masks, there are two very unique characteristics of Uruguayan Carnaval--candombe and murgas. I was lucky enough to witness practice sessions of both.

Candombe is drumming that was introduced by African migrants to Uruguay in the 19th century. Each neighborhood, or comparsa, has its own troupe. An old man with a felt hat and an old woman typically lead the drummers down a procession. Every Sunday night, without fail, several candombe troupes march down the streets in the Palermo barrio in Montevideo, banging away, wowing both locals and visitors alike.

Murgas, on the other hand, are performing troupes. They sing, dance, act, or perform a combination of the above. As I previously wrote, I had the opportunity to view a murga of singers, drummers and a guitarist practice in Tacuarembo.

The Warm and Hospitable Uruguayans

Uruguayans are some of the world’s friendliest people I have met! They are a humble and friendly bunch, always willing to help people with directions and other needs. Various customs I have observed have also led me to believe in this. In social situations, Uruguayans kiss all the other people (cheek-to-cheek kiss and just once, on the right cheek), regardless of whether they have just met and regardless of the gender. Furthermore, they like to bring the mate gourd and thermos out into the streets and drink it on the beach or at a park, passing the mate around amongst friends.

My CouchSurfing hosts have been very amicable and also hospitable. For example, I felt like part of the Diaz family the moment I stepped into their apartment. Everyone, the mother, father, two brothers, sister, sister’s boyfriend, 2 cats and dog made me feel at home. I enjoyed learning about Uruguay and its culture through our conversations. I shared mate with my host Manuel and his friends by the Rambla just minutes after we met. One side note, the mother makes the best bread and pizza!

After staying with the Diaz family for a few days, the sister Aliusha and her boyfriend Mauro kindly took me into their apartment. I felt like I was staying with long-lost friends! Aliusha even arranged it so that I could stay with a friend of hers in La Paloma, a beach town on the Atlantic coast of Uruguay.

I was also made a part of Alejandro’s family at the farm from the very first day. I was invited to eat with them and help out with farm tasks. This occurred even though I had never met them and they knew nothing about CouchSurfing. Furthermore, it was amazing how we managed to communicate; I don’t understand Spanish and they don’t understand English. However, with the aid of a Spanish-English dictionary, some gestures and some patience, we were able to comprehend each other. I enjoyed playing with Alejandro’s youngest daughter, Anneline, who even served me fresh peanuts from the farm!

On the Farm, Uruguay

I had originally wanted to stay on an estancia in Uruguay (actually, in Argentina, but the two countries are very similar). I, like most other people, had romanticized about life on an estancia--riding horses, savoring parrilla (grilled meat) and sipping mate (tea) under the stars. However, since Cser Maria was able to connect me to a farmer friend of her’s (Alejandro), I decided to stay on a small farm instead.

Alejandro’s farm turned out to be very rustic. Not only was it in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by fields and hills, the farmhouse did not contain a shower. I was taken aback at having to use the traditional bucket and cup to bathe myself!

The farm is indeed very self-sufficient. Alejandro and his family owned 16 cows, 2 horses, 3 pigs and a bunch of dogs, cats and rabbits. Yes, I felt like I was living in a zoo! There was also a vegetable garden with lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, beans and corn. The only fruit grown on the farm were small peaches. And by the way, there were also peanut trees!

For a city boy like me, the tasks on the farm were indeed exotic. Daily tasks include milking the cows, herding the cows to the stream, feeding all the animals and making cheese. Other tasks include baking bread, making butter and tending the vegetable garden.

Here’s a 101 on how to make cheese, which is the only product that Alejandro’s family sells at the Sunday market. First, milk and curdling agent are added to a vat. I was told that it takes 11-12 L of milk to product 1 kg of cheese. Then, the mixture is stirred for about 1 hour. Next, the curd (to become cheese) is sifted from the vat and placed in a mold. All the “milk” is allowed to drained out, which takes 1 day. The next morning, the cheese is placed on a shelf for 15 days to mature.

Making cheese, in my opinion, is much easier than milking cows. I was excited at the latter activity, but when it came time to do it, I lost interest after a few minutes. This is because one can expend lots of energy in milking, yet out comes a trickle of milk. At the rate that I was milking, it would have taken me close to an hour to fill the 10-L bucket. Alejandro surprisingly preferred to milk by hand even though he has a milking machine. He milks at least 80 L of milk each day!

Tacuarembo, Uruguay

I traveled by bus for about 5 hours to the heart of “gaucho” or rural Uruguay--Tacuarembo. This town is literally in the middle of nowhere as it is surrounded by endless green fields and rolling hills.

My main purpose in visiting Tacuarembo was to stay at a Uruguayan farm for a few days. I’ll talk about my experiences at the farm in another entry as I would like to talk about my adventures at Tacuarembo. There, Maria, a CouchSurfer who helped me organize my farm stay, picked me up at the bus station and then took me to a practice session of a murga, which is a singing and dancing Carnaval troupe. In addition to the one guitarist and two drummers, there were about a dozen singers and dancers. This was a perfect complement to the candombe Carnaval drumming that I had witnessed the previous night. I was entertained by the fact that local TV was filming the event and also by the Uruguayan murga coach who could also speak Swedish.

In the evening, Maria’s friend, a farmer by the name of Alejandro, drove me to the farm on his motorcycle. Thank God I did not have my huge backpack with me, as I doubt it would have survived the ride! The ride was quite windy and bumpy but the main perk was being able to see the sky full of stars in a quiet environment. It’s quite interesting how trusting one becomes when one is placed in a foreign environment. I mean, I don’t even know this guy and I am riding with him at night on an empty road--who knows where he’ll take me!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Me Encanta Montevideo!

Montevideo is like one of those average friends with nothing obviously special about him. However, if one digs deeper and give it enough time, one will discover an amiable and laidback friend.

Montevideo is more than the above. In my short time here, I have savored the city’s delicious steaks, desserts and empanadas. I have shared mate (tea) with Uruguayans, passing around a “communal” mate gourd and bombilla (metal straw). I have witnessed a tango show--definitely a cultural highlight. I have attended a Carnavel candombe drumming practice. I have watched a piano concert at the Teatro Solis and have strolled down the Rambla to watch a sunset over the Rio de la Plata. Everywhere I have been, I have met plenty of friendly people, willing to go out of there way to help a lost tourist.

One experience I will never forget is attending a Nacional football match. This was my first live football match and it was exhilarating! I was sitting near the front and witnessed the back-and-forth of the ball. I also liked the passion of the fans, who would yell, swear, stand up and play the drums to liven up the atmosphere.

Another experience is witnessing the electoral campaign passion of the public. Since voting is mandatory in Uruguay, citizens are urged to be well-informed of the political parties and candidates. It was great to see a healthy democracy in action and entertaining to observe people waving multicolored flags of their political parties on the Rambla during weekends. I wish people in the U.S. were more involved with the electoral process and more passionate and informed about issues.

I have really enjoyed taking the time to stroll down tree-lined streets filled with Spanish colonial architecture. On the other hand, I have also enjoyed the fact that there are modern, first-world neighborhoods that remind me of home. Overall, I have discovered that it is definitely worth it to take the time to explore a city outside of the main tourist points.

Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is indeed South America’s most livable capital city. It has the culture of Buenos Aires and Europe, yet isn’t that hectic.

This is a city of contradictions. On the one hand, there are many cultural happenings and delicious food. The first weekend I was there, simultaneously occurring were a performing arts festival, a film festival and a tango festival. The museums are mostly free and the many mansions exhibits were housed in reminded me of Europe. This is amazing as Uruguay is relatively poor compared to Europe and the U.S., yet provides well in the area of culture.

The food consists of simple empanadas (baked pockets stuffed with meat, cheese, or vegetables) to the gourmet parrillas (e.g., steaks). My favorite daily pastime was entering a bakery and purchasing a bunch of tiny savory and sweet breads and pastries. These include cheese croissants, fruit tarts, flan, brownies, dulce de leche (caramel paste) with chocolate.

Another highlight is that Montevideo is blessed with miles and miles of beaches along the Rio de la Plata. Its coastal thoroughfare, the Rambla, is populated day and night with people enjoying the views.

On the other hand, Montevideo has its unsavory characteristics. These include dog feces all over the sidewalks and parks; potholes on practically every sidewalk; and air pollution from continuous car exhaust. There are also run-down parts of the old town that are unsafe to wander at night.


I find that traveling, like so much of life, is all about expectations. If one sets low expectations, then there is a great chance that one will enjoy the activity or place and vice versa. For example, before I visited London, I thought the city was boring since it was culturally quite similar to the U.S. However, I found the city to be very diverse, rich in history and culture. Conversely, my guidebook painted a very positive and charming picture of Montevideo, Uruguay. Thus, I was surprised at the run-down buildings and potholes there.

Night at the Buenos Aires Airport!

Staying overnight at an airport did not bother me as this was going to be part 4. In my past travels, I have spent the night in San Francisco, Toronto and Lima.

It turned out that I had plenty of company in a well-lit and well-guarded terminal. As predicted, I barely slept and did a little bit of reading. The most interesting observation at the Buenos Aires Airport were the numerous “wrap bag” services that charged $11 per bag. Basically, several layers of plastic would be wrapped around the luggage to ensure that no one broke into the suitcase. This service would never exist in the U.S. since the paranoid government opens passengers’ bags for “security reasons”.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bienvenido a Uruguay, or Not

After a few days resting and planning in San Diego, it was time to move onto another continent--South America. I had spent the week in San Diego pondering where to travel for the next month. My options were Central America, Colombia & Ecuador, or Uruguay. My original plan was to visit Central America, but after learning that October is the rainiest month and in the midst of hurricane season, I began to contemplate where else to go. I had heard about the gorgeous colonial towns, pristine beaches, snow-capped volcanoes and lush forests of Colombia and Ecuador and thus was tempted to go there. However, I ruled out this option as the weather was hot and unpredictable (can be quite rainy) and I did not want to be “running around” every few days to a different town. Thus, in the end, I decided to spend the next month in the small country of Uruguay, as I wanted to “settle down” and learn every nuance of life there. The country is culturally similar to Argentina but less hectic. In a sense, I wanted to stop being a traveler for a while and more of a “liver”.

My flight to Uruguay passed through Dallas and Buenos Aires. For the Dallas to Buenos Aires leg, I flew business class thanks to my friend Ming who works for American Airlines. It was my first time traveling on business class internationally and I enjoyed the perks-- Bose noise-cancelling headphones, amenity kit, comforter, lie-flat seat, real cutlery and a three-course meal with unlimited free alcohol!

However, this feel-good moment did not last long as the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Cancun due to electrical problems. Hence, everyone spent the night in Cancun (having to go through unnecessary immigration and customs) allowing the mechanics to fix the issue. Well, at least I fitted a little of my Central America trip into my itinerary!

The next morning, I found out that the flight landed in Cancun due to missing fire extinguishers! I cannot believe they couldn’t find a few fire extinguishers in the Cancun Airport and place them on the plane. Instead, they had to fly them in from Miami the next morning.

I am writing this in the Cancun Airport, about to board my flight to Buenos Aires. My expected landing time is around midnight and my flight to Montevideo isn’t until tomorrow at 12:15pm. Thus, that means a night at the Buenos Aires Airport! I’ll post what happens there later, but for now, since I still have free WiFi access, I am going to post this entry.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Farewell, Europe!

After 4.5 months, it is time to bid Europe farewell. I have enjoyed my time here immensely and will be back to explore those Central/Eastern European countries in more depth. I will surely miss the food, architecture, public transportation and culture.

I am undecided as to where to visit next. What I do know is that it will be in the “new world”, either Central America or Uruguay.

London, United Kingdom

I have to admit I wasn’t too excited about visiting London, since it’s so culturally similar to the U.S. However, after spending almost a week here, I was wrong to think that way!

It seemed that everything I experienced or saw in London, I would compare that to New York. For the most part, London always was the “winner” in my opinion. For example, the people here are quite polite, frequently saying “excuse me” or “sorry”. Furthermore, the streets are clean and the Tube (subway) is well-lit, modern and efficient. I generally felt extremely safe in London.

My London highlight was visiting all those museums. Yes, it’s amazing how everything else in London costs a fortune once it’s converted into dollars but the majority of museums are free. I spent more than 6 hours at the British Museum and I still felt rushed. I also enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery, with the likes of politicians, businesspeople, or artists. Lastly, at the Royal Observatory, I got to see the Prime Meridian and learn about longitude and timekeeping.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Helsinki, Finland

To get from Tallinn to Helsinki, I embarked on a 3.5-hour ship ride. The ship reminded of the ones in Greece as it was filled with facilities: restaurants, bars, shops and even a casino. On disembarking, I noticed most people were carting off boxes of alcohol purchased from the ship’s duty-free shop. The reason for this is that, as you might have guessed, alcohol is very expensive in Finland (and in elsewhere in Scandinavia).

Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the northernmost capital in continental Europe. The city, similar to the rest of Finland, is green and clean. I did the usual touristy activities, visiting the Cathedral, Uspensky Cathedral (Orthodox) and Senate Square. I even went to the local Hakaniemi Market and participated in a tour of the Finnish Parliament, observing its Functionalist d├ęcor.

I stayed with CouchSurfer Paavo in the outskirts of the city and this was definitely a highlight. He lives in Viikki, a new neighborhood showcasing the best of contemporary Finnish architecture. Most buildings there are constructed using a combination of wood, stone, bricks and glass. The use of glass enables natural lighting to shine inside and the building materials allow the structure to blend in to its surroundings, which is a forest. Inside, the insulation was perfect as it was quite warm, as if the heater was turned on. Notable structures include the new school with its solar panels and a wood-and-stone church. I am very glad I stayed in Viikki as this allowed me to savor the best of Nordic design; I must say one of the reasons for me visiting Finland was not its old town (which there isn’t one), but its futuristic architecture.

Another highlight in Finland was my experience in a Finnish sauna. The sauna is a Finnish institution where people relax and socialize. The sauna I was in was in a student apartment building. Lucky Finnish students! Next to the main room were the shower and cold rooms. I must admit the sauna was very hot, steamy and sweaty!

There were several things that impressed me about Finnish society. First, it is very law-abiding with most people waiting for the light to turn green before crossing the street. Second, despite the reputation of Finns being reserved and shy, most of them were very friendly when I needed help. Third, the government offers a plethora of social services for everyone. For example, I went inside City Hall and find brochures covering everything including the city budget, libraries, parks, schools and even a newcomer’s guide to Helsinki. I have always had a high opinion of Scandinavia as I heard that society there functions well. While my visit was brief, I had a glimpse of the good stuff and will surely be back!