Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All Good Things Come to an End

Well, that’s it! After a little over a year, my worldwide odyssey has come to an end! I sincerely want to thank everyone--my family, friends, hosts and travelers. Without them, my trip would not have been possible. This past year has been the highlight of my life thus far. My travels have broadened my horizons and eliminated many stereotypes I had about certain cultures. Everywhere I visited, I tried to interact with locals, learning about their country, culture and society. I value these interpersonal experiences, as they are the most memorable and more educational than reading books. I will remember my interactions with locals much more than I will remember the tourist attractions. I have learned that regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, people are very similar all over the world. Everyone needs to feed his or her family, be loved and be accepted.

One indelible mark left on me as a result of this trip is my view on humanity. I am so glad I had the chance to step back and slow down from the daily grind of life. In doing so, I have been able to observe and experience humanity at its finest. I never expected to be invited to a man’s village, fed by a woman on a train or led to a bus station by a stranger. These “random acts of kindness” have shown me there are people with good intentions in the world, and to open up to them.

The following are some (not exhaustive) of my favorite countries:

France--There are many reasons why this is the most touristed country in the world. I like France because of its diversity--a country the size of Texas contains many different geographies, cultures and food. France places a huge emphasis on the arts and culture. In my opinion, French food and wine are simply the best in the West.

Spain--Similar to France, there are many reasons why this is the second most touristed country in the world. I like Spain because of its diverse regions, cultures and food. For example, Andalucia, a southern region, has unique Moorish architecture. I was surprisingly wowed by the number of cultural festivals in Spain.

South Africa--I had the opportunity to only visit the Western Cape province in South Africa. I was stunned by the natural beauty of Cape Town, its mountains, beaches and nearby wineries. Moreover, I appreciated the diversity there, as its mix of Blacks, Whites, Indians and Malays enriches the South African culture.

Uruguay--A tiny country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil that is not on the tourist trail. I loved the friendly locals, the laid-back lifestyle, the farms and the beaches. Uruguay is small enough for me to learn all aspects of its society. For me, it was a joy simply living in Montevideo after traveling non-stop the previous months.

Syria--This Arab country has the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world! Also, Syria contains a wealth of history, as evidenced by its Roman ruins, Byzantine monasteries, Crusader castles and courtyard mansions. I enjoyed learning about the “real” Syria and not the Syria portrayed in Western media.

Malaysia--This is my favorite country in Southeast Asia. I love the cultural blend of Malays, Chinese and Indians. As a result of this diversity, Malaysian food is some of the best in the world. Lastly, friendly locals and a well-developed infrastructure makes traveling in Malaysia hassle-free.

China--The world’s most populous country surprised me on many fronts. Traveling around rural China, I encountered hospitable people, quaint villages and scenic countryside. In urban China, I loved the juxtaposition of old and new. The food is diverse and simply the best Asian food! China is racing ahead into the future and everyday brings changes and surprises. Overall, China is a very exciting country to visit!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shanghai, China




Shanghai is China’s “New York” and thus is its wealthiest city. The city is blessed with a rich history, evidenced in the old and new buildings.

When I was visiting Shanghai, the city was gearing up for Expo 2010, a world-class event with almost 200 countries building pavilions. Because of this huge event, security had been ramped up everywhere, as seen in the X-ray scanners at each subway station.

Shanghai is racing ahead into the future at lightning speed. There is construction everywhere. Everyday, new sections of freeways, apartment blocks, skyscrapers and subway lines are being added. The most conspicuous evidence of this is in Pudong, the business district by the Huangpu River. Pudong is dominated by skyscrapers, which include the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Jinmao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Centre. These buildings are beautifully lit up at night, which can be seen across the Huangpu on the Bund. New shopping centers also abound in Shanghai, including those lining Nanjing Rd. and Sichuan Rd.

The Shanghai of the past is equally attractive. Elegant concession-era buildings line the Bund, the avenue adjacent to the Huangpu River. Throughout the city center, there are quaint shuttered European-style homes. Emphasizing the importance of historical preservation, the government has restored several old neighborhoods and transformed them into tourist hot spots. These areas include Shanghai “Old Street”, Xintiandi, Tianzifang and Duolun Street. I enjoyed the outdoor atmosphere of these areas--people have utilized the old courtyards by socializing and dining.

The food in Shanghai is among the best in the world. On my last day, I went to a popular restaurant to eat xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings with soup inside) and xian jian bao (pan-fried pork dumplings with soup inside). These were scrumptious and I will be sure to be back in Shanghai to dine on some more!

Luzhi, China




Luzhi is a lovely little canal town two hours away from Shanghai, near its famous neighbor, Suzhou. I chose to visit this “little Venice” as I had heard Suzhou is a large city.

Luzhi has one of the best ambiences of any Chinese town. Old wooden and brick Chinese buildings line narrow canals, with stone bridges arching over them. Trees line the canals, adding to the charm of the town. In the shops near the canals, locals sell a wide range of crafts, including musical instruments, fans, paintings, calligraphy and dresses. Overall, Luzhi is simply a great place to take it easy and wander around for the sake of soaking up its relaxing atmosphere.

Beijing, China




Beijing, China’s capital since the Yuan Dynasty (about 800 years ago), is one of the world’s most fascinating cities. It combines both old and new on a grand scale. Beijing has its traditions, but it is also leaping ahead into a world-class metropolis.

I came to Beijing primarily to witness its history. The top four historical sites that cannot be missed are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Great Wall. The Forbidden City, next to the famous Tiananmen Square, was China’s seat of royalty during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The gigantic complex contains a garden and many halls and residences with orange tiled Chinese roofs and red columns. I found the architecture not quite fascinating, as I grew up with Chinese architecture. The Summer Palace, on the other hand, was the emperor’s suburban residence. The complex contains a huge lake, Kunming, with several bridges, pagodas and a temple complex on a hill. The Summer Palace is a great escape from the city’s crowds. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperor would pray for a good harvest. This complex contains the famous Harvest Prayer Hall, with its three-storied round structures.

The Great Wall, the only man-made structure seen from space, is my favorite historical structure. Together with a group of CouchSurfers, we took a two-hour van to the outskirts of Beijing. We then proceeded on a 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, which took about 5.5 hours. The hike was phenomenal! Not only were there few tourists, but I could see the wall snake its way up and down the hills for miles. It was amazing to trod on a historical path and appreciate the work that was put into building this masterpiece.

Modern Beijing is undeniably spectacular. I started off my tour visiting the National Grand Theatre, in the shape of an egg “floating” in a pool of water. I then visited Olympic Park, site of the successful 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Of particular interest to me was the National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) and the National Aquatic Centre (“Water Cube”). The other part of modern Beijing are the malls and shopping districts that have cropped up these past few years. There are probably more foreign brand-name outlets in Beijing now than in Hong Kong. Areas such as Wangfujing Dajie and Sanlitun are about as capitalistic one will find in China.

One part of Beijing that I enjoyed was the area of Houhai, with its renovated hutong (alleys). In recent years, the city has begun to realize the tourism potential of its historical buildings and have converted many stone courtyard homes into bars, cafes and restaurants. Many of these homes are simply charming.

Dining in Beijing. All I can say is “yum!” This is because as China’s capital, Beijing has all types of Chinese food. In fact, one hardly even knows what Beijing food is, except of course, for the famous Peking duck. I was fortunate enough to dine on Peking duck (my favorite part is the sweet plum sauce) with Cser Calvin at the most famous place of all, Quanjude. My other dining adventures in Beijing involved munching on bao zi (steamed buns with pork and vegetables), jiao zi (soup dumplings) and bing (crepe with egg and onions).

Zhangjiajie, China





I initially was not going to visit Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO-listed park filled with towering quartz sandstone peaks. However, the park, located in northwest Hunan province, was a good stopping point between Guilin and Beijing. It took me over 15 hours by train from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, and this included a connection in Liuzhou. On my first train, I sat on a hard bench seat. Luckily, the train was fairly empty, so I did not have to endure the crowds that I had envisioned (including many people standing). On my second train, from Liuzhou to Zhangjiajie, I slept on a hard sleeper. This is the most popular way to travel long-distance in China as it is the most economical and comfortable. Because of this, one usually has to buy hard sleeper tickets days in advance. Each hard sleeper compartment (rooms without doors) contains six beds, in two groups of three bunks each. The middle and upper bunks are not as comfortable as the lower bunks due to the fact that one cannot sit upright on them. The beds themselves are quite narrow--about two feet in width.

I arrived in Zhangjiajie city and took a public bus to the youth hostel. This was the only youth hostel I stayed at in China and it did not disappoint. The room and bathroom were clean and well-lit. The common area was cozy with wonderful d├ęcor. I later learned that many youth hostels in China are decorated stylishly, either modern or refurbished historical. This certainly beats many hostels in the West!

I visited Zhangjiajie park on two separate days. In fact, I was practically the only solo traveler and one of the few “foreigners”. Most people who visit join tour groups and even those who travel independently hire a guide at the park. I admit it was quite difficult to schedule a trip from Zhangjiajie city to the park as both public bus and park shuttle bus schedules are not posted. Thus, I had to constantly ask locals for information. On both days, I caught the last bus from the park back to the city (an early 5pm). On the second day, I had planned to catch an earlier bus, but that fell through as I exited the park at a different place (which a guide recommended) and then realized I had to walk 40 minutes to the bus stop.

On my first day, I strolled through the flat and boring Golden Whip Stream. This area allows one to gaze up at the numerous “spiky” quartz limestone peaks that is characteristic of the park. These peaks were formed thousands of years ago from water erosion. I then hiked up to Yuanjiajie and walked from one viewing platform to the next. The views up there were incredible, as I saw the tops of those “spiky” peaks. The effect of mist on the peaks was phenomenal. The most unique structure was the limestone bridge that arched its way to a peak with thousands of padlocks (apparently for good luck). There were moments during my walk through Yuanjiajie that I got the viewing platform to myself. However, as I progressed through the walk, more tour groups appeared, disturbing the tranquil environment. I accepted this, as there are always many people in China, as this is the most populous nation in the world!

On my second and last day, I visited the viewing platforms at Tianzi Shan, the highest point in the park. This area had the most spectacular views, with peaks likened to “calligraphy pens”. This area was also swarming with tourists and food sellers. I spent the afternoon hiking the much less touristed Yangjiajie. I climbed peaks such as “One Step to Heaven”. Yangjiajie was my favorite part of the park because one can get varying views of the peaks. Besides a birds-eye view, I was also able to descend in between peaks and end up at a valley of peaks. I was often alone on this hike, which made the experience more memorable, as I was able to concentrate on the beautiful scenery and not on tourists snapping numerous pictures of themselves.

Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, China




Besides the legendary karst peaks in the Yangshuo and Guilin areas, northeast Guangxi province also contains another tourist gem--the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. This man-made agricultural wonder looms over several villages of the Yao minority.

Myself and two Canadian backpackers, Alicia and Jelena, decided to stay at an inviting guesthouse in the traditional Yao village of Dazhai. Dazhai contains wooden homes with gray Chinese-style roofs, all nestled in a valley filled with yellow wildflowers and a stream. The surrounding cliffs contain step-like rice terraces.

We embarked on a hike up the mountains, past the village of Tiantouzhai and to viewing platform #1. This place gave us a panoramic and commanding view of several rice terraces and villages. Despite the lack of greenness (it was the dry season), I enjoyed observing the undulating edges of the rice terraces and their enormity.

The most exhilarating part of the hike was getting lost. In fact, if one doesn’t speak Chinese, one will definitely get lost as there are no signs; I had to constantly ask locals for directions. After we passed viewing platform #1, we decided to hike to the summit to catch the sunset at viewing platform #3. We did see the sun setting, but not over any rice terraces, so we did not reach viewing platform #3. We then decided to head down the mountain as it was getting dark. At around dusk, we arrived at a miners’ compound, unsure of where we were. The miners told us that the only way back to Dazhai village was to go back the way we came, which would take 3 hours. This was not going to be possible because it was getting dark. The miners told us the only option would be to hire a van to take us to the nearest city of Longsheng, where we would have to spend the night and head to Dazhai the next morning to retrieve our luggage. We did just that, splitting the RMB200 van ride.

Despite the initial fear of getting lost and having to pay a “penalty” in the form of a van and an extra hotel room, chatting with the miners proved to be one of my highlights in China thus far. The miners were there to extract gold and worked long hours (in shifts around the clock). It turns out that we were not the first “lost” tourists. There have been a handful of foreigners in the past. I was lucky in that I could communicate with them in Chinese. The miners were extremely hospitable and I saw a side of the Chinese (from strangers, that is) that I have never experienced. They served as several types of tea, all brewed and poured from a traditional tea set and apologized several times for not having food for us. Furthermore, they gave us tea leaves as gifts. This experience has given me an even more positive view of rural China.

Yangshuo and Guilin, China




After waiting for weeks for my “return home permit” to enter China (which reduced my time in China from 4 to 2 weeks), I boarded an overnight bus from Shenzhen to Yangshuo. The 9.5-hour sleeper bus (with beds in it) was very comfortable and efficient. I arrived in Yangshuo at 5am, 1.5 hours ahead of schedule.

I was extremely excited to be visiting China! I have only been to China once (Xi’an) and that was 14 years ago. Thus, I was unfamiliar with the culture and society of the Mainland and was curious to experience it! In particular, I wanted to visit the scenic Chinese countryside, with its villages, rivers and hills. I wanted to discover the beauty of a country that has been deemed “polluted” by Western media.

The Yangshuo and Guilin area in northeast Guangxi province smashed most stereotypes I had about an ugly, polluted China. This area consists of fabled karst limestone peaks overlooking rice paddies, quaint villages and meandering rivers (Li Jiang, Yulong He). The scenery resembled a painting.

One of my highlights was cycling in the countryside, with karst peaks surrounding me. My day guide Daisy and I also floated down the Yulong He on a bamboo raft, sliding down a few rapids. Another highlight was the 4-5 hour walk along the Li Jiang from the village of Yangdi to Xingping. For this hike, I followed the river the entire time, all the while gazing at those dreamy peaks and chatting with the villagers. The countryside (and especially on the trail) was calm and peaceful, with wildflowers and water buffaloes along the way.

Back in town, I sampled the famous “Guilin rice noodle soup”, with its sour and spicy condiments. There was nothing special about the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin, only that I preferred Yangshuo because of it is smaller. Guilin has become a large city with tall buildings that hide many of its famous peaks.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Myanmar




Myanmar is the most isolated country in Southeast Asia and thus the most exotic. I chose to visit this country only after I visited most of the rest of Southeast Asia, as I wanted to journey to a less touristy part of the world.

Because of the actions of the military regime in Myanmar, most people choose to boycott the country. Thus, there is considerably less tourist traffic in Myanmar than in the rest of Southeast Asia. I believe this makes Myanmar a pleasant place to travel in, as there are fewer touts to hassle tourists. Furthermore, the locals are nicer (many smile and wave frequently to tourists) and interactions with them are genuine.

There are several quirky aspects of Myanmar. First, there are numerous right-sided steering wheel vehicles driving on the right side of the road. This is because after Myanmar gained independence from the British, it decided to do things the opposite way. However, many of the vehicles in the country are quite ancient, or models donated from Japan (which drive on the left side of the road). Another intriguing aspect is that there are no ATMs in Myanmar. This is the first country I have traveled to without ATMs. People simply carry stacks of cash with them! Lastly, there are frequent (nightly) power outages everywhere in the country.

My travels within Myanmar was cut short due to a very bad case of food poisoning. The source was probably a beef curry dinner that I ate on the streets of Yangon the first night. Because of this, I was sick for four days and bed-ridden for two of those in Kalaw. This was the first serious illness I have gotten after nearly one year of traveling, so it was tough. The one place that I did not have time to visit but wanted to originally is the archeological temple site of Bagan.

The highlight of my trip was the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. During this three-day two-night trek, I met some fellow travelers. Together, we visited several villages, observing locals play, grind tamarind, pack rice and farm. I enjoyed the scenery of hills, valleys and rice terraces. At night, we slept in a village and in a monastery. In the end, we arrived in scenic Inle Lake, surrounded by mountains, stilt villages, monasteries and floating gardens. I will never forget scenes of fishermen rowing with their feet on canoes, attempting to catch fish with their cone-shaped nets.

Syria-- The Friendliest Country in the World!




Of the over 60 countries I have visited so far, Syria ranks as one of my favorites. The stereotypical images of Arab terrorists bombing places are far-fetched and simply do not apply in Syria. In fact, I found Syria to be one of the safest countries to walk around by myself during the day and at night. Furthermore, Syrians exude warmth to foreigners--their Arab hospitality is among the finest in the world.

My favorite aspect of my visit to Syria was its people. I have never been in a country before where strangers (and even children) would say “welcome” to me! Strangers would be ever so helpful in guiding me to my intended destination and even walk me there. People would stop me in the streets and ask to take a picture with me! (I felt like a Hollywood star, for once.) People on long-distance buses would chat with me and offer me candy.

I am ever so grateful to the CouchSurfers in Syria who hosted and/or showed me around. I am especially thankful to Darwish, who made my stay in Aleppo memorable. I enjoyed sipping tea and eating mezze with his family, and the visit to his Kurdish village. That was definitely a unique experience that would not have occurred if it were not for Darwish. Lastly, Darwish even went with me to the bus station and helped me compare prices and obtain information for buses to Lebanon (which I did not end up going).

The ultimate highlight of my stay in Syria was a visit to my friend Maher’s village, near Der’a in southwest Syria. I met Maher on a minibus going from the long-distance bus station in Damascus to the city center. We had just arrived in Damascus from Aleppo. Maher noticed that I was one of the few foreigners and began chatting with me, asking the basic questions of my origins and travels and of course, what I thought about Syria. Towards the end of the minibus ride, he invited me to his cousin’s place in Damascus and then to his village. Having a place to stay in Damascus, I refused his first offer, but noted his cell phone number as I was interested in the latter. I did not think twice about safety as I had read about other similar travelers’ stories in Syria, all positive. Also, this was Arab hospitality at its best, part of Syrian culture, and I was eager to experience life in a Syrian home and in a village.

I kept in touch with Maher and came to his village two days after we first met. The village is in a rustic area full of wheat fields, Bedouin tents, valleys and a stream. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Maher’s brother, his children, nephews and neighbors’ children (all male). Together, we went on a walk/tour of the village. The children were very adorable. Afterwards, I was invited to the elaborate sitting room of Maher’s brother. All the male family members and friends joined me for a scrumptious feast of chicken, fish, rice, pita, hummus, salad and yogurt. The only females I met were young children. After dinner, some of the men smoked sheesha, some played cards, while others drank tea and chatted away. The male children also appeared at times to meet me.

I was touched at how Maher’s family and friends welcomed me with open arms and treated me like an old friend. They joked with me and inquired about Hong Kong, curious to interact with the first foreigner to visit their village. They invited me to stay as long as I could and to return to Syria and to their village. Unfortunately, I had a flight to catch the next day!

Because of Maher’s village and all the nice people I have met, I will definitely visit Syria again. It is perhaps the most welcoming country in the world.

En Route to Damascus, Syria

My original itinerary to Damascus involved flying with three airlines and two layovers, for a combined 25.5 hrs of traveling. My AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Abu Dhabi was very empty. In fact, many of us laid across three seats. (I learned later on that they have since canceled this route due to low occupancy.)

Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, I spotted many men dressed in traditional Arab attire. This included a white robe (jalabiyya) and checkered headscarf (keffiye). In fact, all the immigration officers wore this outfit. I was a bit taken by surprise as I had never seen anything like this before! It felt like a scene from the movies!

A problem arose when I tried to check-in for my Damascus flight with Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi. The check-in staff told me that according to their system, I needed a visa before arrival on my Hong Kong passport. I told them that this was impossible as there is no Syrian consulate in Hong Kong. They refused to let me board my flight and after a little “begging” on my part, told me to come back in a few hours as they would check with their counterparts at the Damascus Airport. A few hours later, the Etihad staff called the Damascus Airport and informed me again that I would need a Syrian visa before they would let me board any flight to Syria. They told me that I could obtain one at the Syrian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. With the help of another Etihad staff member, I called the Syrian Embassy and explained to the staff my situation. He said that it was possible for me to obtain a visa on arrival and spoke to the check-in supervisor. I was then finally allowed to board a flight to Damascus, one that was 5 hours after the original flight!

Etihad Airways did not apologize for what happened above nor did they even try to make my waiting time or flight easier. In fact, my flight was utter chaos as these Pakistani religious pilgrims sat wherever they wished and refused to adhere to what was printed on their boarding passes. As a result of this ordeal, I am never flying with Etihad Airways (yeah right, the “world’s best airline”) again!

And the conclusion of the story is that I had to wait a bit for my visa on arrival at the Damascus Airport, but it was granted without too many questions asked. I was welcomed to Syria!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Great Ocean Road, Australia




The Great Ocean Road, a windy, scenic, coastal road near Melbourne, is similar to California’s coastal Highway 1. Actually, with its numerous rock formations, curvaceous coast and blue-green water, I think the Great Ocean Road is more stunning than its California counterpart.

Four other CouchSurfers and I rented an SUV to explore the Great Ocean Road in two days. We started in Torquay (nearest to Melbourne) and drove all the way to Port Campbell before heading back. My favorite view of the Great Ocean Road meandering along the coast was at Teddy’s Lookout.

We camped at Cape Otway, the southernmost point of the area. Near our campsite were coastal trails that led to scenic, rocky beaches. Also, there were several koalas in the trees in Cape Otway, resting and eating, as usual. We also saw two koalas near the road at night while driving back.

Parts of the Great Ocean Road are a bit inland, giving us the opportunity to observe lush hills and valleys and cattle. Some areas reminded me of the European countryside.

The most stunning part of the Great Ocean Road had to be The Twelve Apostles and the area nearby. The Twelve Apostles are six (used to be twelve) rock formations in the ocean. Together with the adjacent undulating coast, it makes for great photographs and priceless memories. We were luckily able to witness the sunset and the changing colors of the clouds at The Twelve Apostles. Visiting nature’s gifts, like those along the Great Ocean Road, reminds me of how beautiful the world is and how we need to safeguard these natural treasures for future generations.

Australian Open 2010




They say that there can be four seasons in a day in Melbourne and this was clearly exhibited during the Australian Open (tennis tournament). On several days, there was a persistent overcast and chill, reminding me of wintry weather (I thought heading to the Southern hemisphere would save me from winter). However, many people, including me, got sun-burnt on those days. At least it wasn’t scorching hot during the tournament, though!

The reason I chose to come to Melbourne in mid-January, in the middle of the Australian summer, was to watch the Australian Open, one of four Grand Slam tennis tournaments (the other three being the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open). Ever since I was a child, it had been my dream to attend a Grand Slam tournament. I was going to watch the French Open in Paris last May but did not get a chance as all the tickets were sold out by the time I got to the venue. Thus, I bought my five-day grounds pass for the Aussie Open months ahead of the competition.

I watched tennis for five straight days (the second to sixth days as it was raining on the first day), spending about 7-12 hours a day at Melbourne Park, the venue. With my grounds pass, I could roam around more than a dozen courts, giving me complete flexibility. In actuality, though, one can only enter the courts during players’ rest time and many of the seats in the three outside stadiums fill up early in the day. I watched first to third round matches. I was lucky in that I watched all the matches that I wanted to. My favorite player to watch is the French male player Gael Monfils, slipping and sliding on the court as if it were clay! I also got to watch Venus and Serena Williams play doubles.

One thing about watching live tennis--it is much more interesting than watching TV tennis! The time seems to go by much faster during live matches as one can catch up on scores from the other courts or simply observe the audience during players’ breaks. The atmosphere in the courts in outstanding! Some countries have cheering squads that resemble fans at football matches (e.g., Sweden, Croatia, Serbia and Chile--I’ll never forget those fans!). Other fans waved flags, wore their nation’s colors, painted their favorite players’ names on themselves or simply yelled!

Outside of tennis, there were vendor stalls and food booths in the area. I especially enjoyed the big screens that broadcasted live matches from the two main courts, along with score updates. Overall, the Aussie Open had great atmosphere and I want to come back in the future.

Melbourne, Australia




Melbourne, Australia’s “second city” has a European vibe to it. The city is composed of charming neighborhoods filled with Victorian architecture, curbside cafes and shady parks. Because of all this, I adore Melbourne more than Sydney, which I found rather bland and modern.

Melbourne’s heart is Federation Square, with its modern museums and giant TV screen. I like the atmosphere of this central location; in fact, I watched some Australian Open tennis on the giant screen.

My highlight in the city had to be celebrating Australia Day. The government did a great job of planning a day of free events for the public. This began with a People’s Parade down Swanston Street. The festivities also included an acrobatics show by the Australian Air Force, a guitar concert, birthday cake cutting and vintage car exhibition. The grand finale was a spectacular fireworks show over Federation Square and the Yarra River. Happy birthday, Australia!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Farewell to Southeast Asia

It was with great sadness when I boarded my plane out of Kuala Lumpur after traveling for seven weeks in Southeast Asia. This is a region that I was never quite interested in visiting. Growing up in Hong Kong, I always felt that Southeast Asia was boring, backwards, dirty and quite similar to Hong Kong. I have since learned that one cannot judge a place unless one has visited it.

I have grown fond of Southeast Asia, despite the long and uncomfortable bus rides, the air pollution, the loudness and the dirty bathrooms. This is region with warm people, delicious food, beautiful temples, lush jungles, pristine beaches and diverse wildlife. If one takes the time to explore, Southeast Asia can be a very relaxing place to stay or live.

My favorite country is clearly Malaysia, with Singapore in second. Of all the countries I have traveled to so far, I have never felt as comfortable as I did in Malaysia. Malaysia felt like home the moment I arrived (especially Penang). The Chinese there were extremely friendly and the CouchSurfers and I were like old friends, fighting for the restaurant bill at times! (This is a Chinese “custom.”) Every dish that I tried was delicious. In fact, I was always planning what to eat next! In addition to the familiar Chinese culture, I also appreciate the cultural diversity and harmony in Malaysia. I believe the Malays and Indians add “spice” to life, through their festivals, customs and food. Because of this, Malaysian food is my favorite in Southeast Asia. Lastly, I like the fact that Malaysia has historical cities, rainforests, mountains, beaches and wildlife. There is so much to do in this compact country! Furthermore, there is little hassling and overcharging of foreigners.

Thus, I am certain that I will be back in Malaysia and in Singapore. One visit is definitely not enough!

Singapore


I decided to visit Singapore for one day since I was in the area. I was not excited about visiting the city state at first because people have told me it is similar to Hong Kong and that there is “nothing to see.”

In fact, I admit that Singapore is one of my favorite cities in Asia! I like the city more than Hong Kong for several reasons. First, Singapore is more multicultural, with is Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. The people are also friendlier and willing to help tourists. They also speak much softer than Hong Kong people in restaurants! Even though Singapore is denser than Hong Kong, I found it to be less crowded. There were fewer highrises and more green space. It also has better signage than Hong Kong. The biggest difference though is that Singapore is better at preserving historical structures. There are many British colonial and shophouse architecture there. Singapore is creative enough to convert many of the old shophouses to atmospheric restaurants, cafes and bars, such as the ones by the Singapore River.

Singapore is almost culturally identical to Malaysia due to the fact that they used to be the same country. The city has its Indian, Malay and Chinese neighborhoods. My favorite neighborhood is the Peranakan (Chinese who came to Malaysia hundreds of years ago) one of Katong. There, many colorful and ornate mansions line the streets, each one with a unique story about the neighborhood.

I was surprised at the number of British colonial structures that are still standing. Most of the major museums are housed in these elegant mansions. One church has been converted into a dining area in order to save it from demolition!

I was very impressed at the amount of cultural offerings in Singapore. The Esplanade Theatre by the Bay is an impressive oval-shaped complex with music, theatre and art. There are free concerts on weekend evenings by the waterfront, with a view of the skyline. Also by the water, but the Singapore River, are rows of old shophouses-turned-into-restaurants. This is a great way to preserve the historical buildings, letting the public enjoy it.

Kuching, Malaysia


Kuching is the capital of Sarawak state in Malaysia. This was my last stop in Borneo.

Kuching means “cat” and the city has several cat statues and a Cat Museum to prove this. Despite a pouring day (it rained non-stop as January is apparently monsoon season), I managed to savor the architectural highlights of the city. Kuching has its share of religious diversity, as demonstrated by its mosques, churches, Hindu temple and Sikh temple. Moreover, there are the ubiquitous Chinese shophouses, with its porches or “covered sidewalks.” My favorite building is the newly built state legislative assembly, perched on the banks of the Sarawak River. The building has an eight-sided golden roof, a typical Islamic design element.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the wealth of British colonial architecture still intact. Many of the columns and white facades were visible in several buildings, such as the Old Court House, the General Post Office, Astana (governor’s residence), Fort Margerita, Square Tower, Sarawak Museum and ironically, the present-day Islamic Museum (with its courtyards).

As for food, Kuching is famous for its Sarawak laksa and kolo mee. The former is soup noodles in a curry broth with shrimp, chicken and eggs. The latter is dried ramen-like noodles with barbequed pork. As usual in Malaysia, I found the food to be scrumptious!

Miri & Niah Caves, Malaysia


I only spent one day in Brunei (I don’t even drink that much and found the place boring). The next day, I crossed back into Malaysia, this time into the state of Sarawak. I headed to the nearest city, Miri.

Miri is a city on the coast of Sarawak. Most people use the city as a base to explore the numerous national parks nearby, such as the UNESCO listed Gunung Mulu National Park with its caves and limestone formations. I originally chose to visit this area in order to see the indigenous people’s longhouses, but decided against that because it was too touristy and fake. Instead, I went to Niah Caves National Park.

It was quite an adventure getting to and from Niah Caves. First, I took a bus from Miri that dropped me off at Niah Junction, by the highway. I stored my bag with the bus ticket office and then attempted to find a ride to Niah Caves. Luckily, a waiter at the food court saw that I was Chinese and helped me in securing a ride.

Niah Caves is a complex of several caverns with prehistoric drawings and graves. Many people used to collect birds’ nest (a Chinese delicacy) and bat droppings (for fertilizer) there. My highlight was walking through the eerie cave in almost-complete darkness. I could hear the bats and water dripping. Another highlight was trekking through rainforest in order to reach the caves. It was then that I understood why these flora constitute the “rainforest” as it was a soaking day!

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei


Bandar Seri Begawan is perhaps Asia’s quietest capital city. There is practically nobody walking down its few streets and cars do not honk. I spent a day in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, mainly as a transfer point between the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Culturally, Brunei is very similar to Malaysia. However, religion plays a more central role in people’s lives as seen by the ubiquitous golden-domed mosques. The grandest of these is probably the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, overlooking an artificial lagoon and containing Mughal architectural elements. Another example of the country’s strict adherence to Islam is the complete absence of alcohol and cigarettes. These items are allowed to be brought into the country on a limited basis. (I was surprised at the stringent hand search of everyone’s luggage for alcohol and drugs.)

My highlight of visiting Brunei was meeting up with local Cser Chee Khiong. He showed me around and answered the many questions I had about his “mysterious” country. Because of its oil wealth, Brunei is able to subsidize many of life’s necessities, including gasoline, utilities, rice, other foods, tertiary education and healthcare. Moreover, there is no income tax!

Chee Khiong also took me to two grand but wasteful structures in Brunei--the Empire Hotel and the Jerudong Amusement Park. The Empire Hotel is the world’s most expensive hotel, costing $1 billion to build. The hotel is struggling to recuperate its costs, probably because of its many gold decorations. The story is similar for Jerudong Amusement Park, which has limited operating hours due to its financial bleeding.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia


Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. I used the city as a base to explore the nature surrounding the city.

Upon arrival at the city’s lost cost airline terminal (it seems that Air Asia always flies to the less convenient terminal), I was told that there is no schedule for the airport bus or minivan. I would probably have to wait at least 30 minutes. Luckily, a local man guided me to the nearest town, a 15-minute walk away, to catch the more frequent bus. I always feel very grateful for the locals who show me the way, for without them, I would be hopelessly lost! By the way, it is always more fun and exciting to figure out public transportation in less developed countries (especially from the airport) as one gets to observe locals that way. Taking a taxi would be too easy and too expensive!

Close to the city is Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The area around the Kinabalu is filled with mountains and valleys, very pristine indeed. This again is not what I would expect if someone mentioned “Malaysia.”

I spent a day snorkeling by Manukan island, part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a 20-minute ferry from Kota Kinabalu. This was my first visit to a beach in Southeast Asia, as I had been “beached out” after Australia! While my visit was a nice getaway from the city, I was not too impressed with this national park. Despite observing some coral and schools of colorful fish, I was disappointed with the amount of garbage floating in the sea. I was snorkeling through plastic bags at some moments! I wonder where the RM10 admission fee is going towards…

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sungai Kinabatangan, Malaysia


The Sungai (river) Kinabatangan is one of Borneo’s best regions to witness wildlife. The Kinabatangan is also located in the state of Sabah in Borneo.

The highlight of my visit there were the river cruises. I went on a late afternoon one and an early morning one. During the trips, I watched numerous proboscis monkeys swing and jump fearlessly through the jungle. These creatures are can be spotted by their white tails and their “hideous” faces. I also spotted several crocodiles and several species of birds, notably the eagle, hornbill and kingfisher. On the morning cruise, I was able to witness an orangutan in the wild!

I also went on a night hike. However, I only spotted a few moths and blue birds, not quite exciting as the river cruises.

Sepilok Orangutan Research Centre, Malaysia


The Sepilok Orangutan Research Centre is one of four orangutan sanctuaries in the world. It is located in the east side of Borneo (which is the eastern part of Malaysia), in the state of Sabah. I came to witness these orange “cousins” of ours.

It was fascinating to watch the orangutans, especially during their feeding time. Seeing the orangutans climb and swing along ropes reminded me of children playing in a playground. These creatures were fearless! I was also entertained by them fighting over bananas.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia


The Cameron Highlands is a mainly tea-producing area in the hills of central peninsular Malaysia. This area is substantially cooler than the rest of west Malaysia due to its altitude.

I felt like I was in Europe the moment I arrived in the town of Tanah Rata. The area is a hill town retreat, with flowers (especially roses), strawberries, honey, butterflies and plenty of fruits. This was not the hot and crowded Malaysia I had envisioned! My highlight was walking along trails that overlooked tea plantations, with its neat paths carved between manicured tea leaves. It was like a scene from paradise!

It was also in the Cameron Highlands where I first tried to hitchhike, along with Jessie and Johnny, two British travelers I met there. We actually hitched twice--first with a Malaysian with a truck and the second time with two Iranian students. It is actually difficult to hitchhike in Malaysia, the people are friendly, but distrustful at the same time.

Penang, Malaysia




Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia, is renowned for its beaches, food and old architecture. I arrived in Georgetown, the main city, on New Year’s Day and stayed for a few days.

Despite the heat and humidity, I immediately developed an affinity for Penang; in fact, I felt like I had arrived home the moment I entered Malaysia. The people there were extremely friendly, treating me like an old friend when they found out that I was from Hong Kong. Two of my favorites, food and architecture, were splendidly displayed in Penang.

In my opinion, Malaysian food is the best food in Southeast Asia and nowhere is this more apparent than in Penang. The variety of food, due to Malaysia’s diverse population of Chinese, Malays and Indians, means that one can never get tired of the food. With CS traveler Eva and CS local Kelley, I sampled almost everything that Penang and Malaysia are renowned for. This included nasi kandar (Indian curry with rice), tea tarek (“pulled tea” or milk tea), roti canai (flaky Indian bread with curry), wonton noodles (fried noodles with chicken and pork, served with a small bowl of wontons in soup), cendol (dessert of beans, milk, syrup and ice), ais kacang (dessert of beans, jellies, milk, syrup, corn), hokkien mee (curry soup noodles with chicken, prawns and eggs), char kway teow (fried thick noodles with eggs, prawns and cockles), assam laksa (the Penang dish; curry soup noodles with tamarind, giving it a hot and sour taste), satay (skewers with peanut sauce), rojak (veggie and fruit salad with shrimp paste and peanuts).

The architecture in Penang is just as diverse as its food, with Chinese temples, Hindu temples and mosques. The old quarter of Georgetown consists of government buildings with British colonial style and Straits Chinese shophouses with a five-foot porch area on the ground floor, thus forming colonnaded sidewalks. My favorite building is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, an ornate home belonging to a rich Chinese merchant in the early 20th century. The home is decorated with both Eastern and Western influences, creating an eclectic piece of artwork.