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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Om

Southeast Asia Travel Secrets

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

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

If you’re looking for flights:

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

If you’re looking for hotels:

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

If you’re not sure about visas:

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

If you want someone else to do all the work:

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

If you want the inside scoop:

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

If you’re looking to get around:

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

If you’re looking to just explore:

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

If you’re hungry:

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

If you want a crazy adventure:

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

If you’re in an emergency:

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

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Living and Giving as an Expat in Nepal

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

Dr. Beaderstadt in the Kathmandu Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rich World of Kyoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

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

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

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

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

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

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

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SCUBA in the Summertime

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

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

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

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

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

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

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

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A Weekend in Hong Kong

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

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

Friday Evening

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware

Sunday

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

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

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

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The Charm of Inle Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yogyakarta in a Weekend

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

Prambanan

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

Friday Afternoon

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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History’s Different Facets: Confronting New Perspectives in Vietnam

Published on April 7, 2014 in Young & Global Magazine:

War Remnants Museum

Here’s a question you probably weren’t asked in history class: Who won the American War? If you’re a little confused as to which war I’m referring to, you’re probably not Vietnamese. To the rest of the world, the prolonged struggle from 1959 to 1975 between communist-backed northern Vietnam and the United States-supported south is commonly known as the Vietnam War. A recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) taught me that history would never be an easy topic to confront or discuss abroad, but that it is worth trying.

A great many Westerners know little about the history of Vietnam before or after this gruesome conflict. The Southeast Asian nation makes a single, traumatizing cameo in American history books, and students will rarely learn about Vietnam from any other angle. While it would be ideal if our education about other nations were more holistic, it isn’t unusual or even remarkable that Americans are taught about the world mainly through our own country’s actions and interactions.

However, it is often forgotten—as in the case of Vietnam—that the foreign players in our nation’s history have long and rich backstories of their own. This is why travel continues to be vital in an era when every nation on earth is represented by galleries of photos on the internet and summaries on Wikipedia. When we go out into the world, we relocate not just our physical bodies, but our minds as well. We are granted the ability to hear these countries’ histories as narrated from their points of view.

This can be frustrating. The history of the world you learned in school will likely be quite different from the recounting you hear abroad, especially when it comes to conflict. It may be tempting to enforce your own nation’s version of events as the “correct” one, but it is important to remember—whether you travel the world or not—that there will never be one entirely accurate account of history. Retellings vary from textbook to textbook, city to city, and country to country. Authors and historians make assumptions, mistakes, and oversights, just like the rest of us. In some cases, you will come across obvious biases or misrepresentations—such as in North Korea’s museums, which feature a clearly false retelling of world events—but most variations will not be so blatant.

History is a collection of human experiences, and each person experiences the world through a unique lens. This lens is heavily influenced by cultural norms and heritage, and many people are unaware of how deeply embedded these influences are. For example: a person who grows up in a powerful, independent country will learn (through formal teachings and subliminal cultural osmosis) to judge the world differently than one who grows up in a country influenced by foreign invasions and occupation. A person who grows up with more than enough to eat is going to appraise a meal differently than a person who grows up with barely enough. A nation that venerates honesty is going to reflect on war differently than a nation that venerates societal harmony.

Modern Propaganda

It is easy to become emotional when faced with an unflattering version of history, particularly if you are American or British or Japanese. You may become angry with your own country, as perhaps you wonder why your teachers failed to cover certain historical events in class. Or you may direct your anger at the country you’re visiting, as perhaps you believe this retelling of events to be unfair. You may feel the urge to completely write off this account of the past, but by doing so you sacrifice a tool for gaining insight into the nation that authored the account. Instead of reacting blindly to this unattractive portrayal of your country, ask yourself why this portrayal exists in the first place.

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City attracts approximately half a million visitors annually and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist sites for foreigners. I left the museum in tears, shaken and bewildered by the unforgivingly vivid photographs of American soldiers smiling next to dismembered men, the piles of slaughtered women, and the children torn apart by U.S. bombs. It might be tempting to decry the War Remnants Museum as propagandist. After all, the museum depicts American soldiers as genocide machines who invaded this country for no reason, and there is almost no mention of any of the Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese atrocities that occurred. But it is worth mentioning that many of the photographs are from vetted American sources and it is worth considering why the Vietnamese government would choose to portray the conflict in such a manner. What might their objective be? And what does it say about them?

By framing this part of history in this way, the War Remnants Museum presents a national Vietnamese identity via its suffering. As a country literally and emotionally split in two by a bloody conflict, a unified identity was an uncertain reality, one that needed to be reinforced. And how better to unite people than to depict them with a common enemy? But this enemy isn’t the United States, however much the violent exhibitions may suggest that it is.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to the international antiwar movement and the museum does take care to include Americans among the posters, newspaper snippets, and photographs: a B-52 pilot who defected, protests in Washington DC, quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. The Vietnamese government may want its population to forget how divided it once was, but the last thing it wants is to incite its people into another imbroglio. Thus, while the museum has no qualms about demonstrating the gory actions of the United States, the enemy it wants visitors to remember and fear is the brutality of conflict. We are supposed to understand that ideologies may be grand and noble, but for the civilians on the ground, war is never anything but senseless and inhuman.

In this case, I agree with the choice to portray history this way, even though I left the War Remnants Museum bawling. Most high school history textbooks explore the macro trends that spurred international conflict but don’t expound upon the grisly trauma. And so, it is occasionally necessary to recall that history happened to people. However, while Ho Chi Minh City’s visceral museum is an indispensable reminder of the human element of war, it is also necessary to remember that no matter how mindlessly violent, no conflict is created in a vacuum. Vietnam’s suffering was real and important, but it was not the entire story.

The War Remnants Museum displays some of what occurred during the Vietnam War, actions and reactions, but not why it occurred. Framing the war as a foreign invasion streamlines Vietnam’s role in the struggle, but it subsequently oversimplifies the convoluted and interlocking series of world events that led up to the conflict in the first place. The Vietnam War was only possible due to the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, which cannot be understood without understanding World War II, which in turn cannot be understood without knowing World War I. To fully understand the reasons for the Vietnam War, one has to go back a full century to the beginning of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia. Empathy alone will not prevent history from repeating itself; we must be knowledgeable as well. Thus, it is important when considering a nation’s past to strike a balance between the causes of war as well as the effects. The global currents and ideological conflicts that take place on a macro scale are crucial to understanding why any individual human being would slaughter another.

History gives us context for what we encounter when we travel and while it empowers visitors to be understanding, equally important are your own eyes. Present-day Ho Chi Minh City is bustling and cheerful. The streets are replete with coffee shops, clothing stores, and petite hotels, in front of which women in nón lá (the traditional conical hat) sell baguette sandwiches, bowls of noodles, soft drinks, and fresh coconuts. Tourists are welcomed. When it rains, foreigners and locals hide under the same awnings and share incredulous laughs at the strength of the downpour. This is a far cry from the horrific depictions in the War Remnants Museum and from the somber history featured in Western textbooks. It is important to be aware of the complicated history and to feel personally how brutal conflict is, but it is also vital to take stock of the living, breathing present and to see how the soul and culture of a nation is so much more than just a past struggle.

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Camping Out in the Outback

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

I prepared for our long weekend in Australia with a thorough Googling: first-aid for snake bites, how to recognize which spiders were poisonous and which were just enormous, and what to do if I came face to face with a crocodile (apparently, sprint away). If that seems like a bit much, it was because we weren’t visiting one of Australia’s metropolises but rather, we were going camping in Litchfield National Park.

The flight to Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, was a manageable four hours from Singapore. As October is just the beginning of Australia’s roasting summer, the petite port city was bathed in dry heat and sunshine hot enough to make you squint. It’s a sleepy town that caters to adventurous tourists and features a cheerful, easygoing nightlife. We spent the entirety of our first day there, soaking in the laidback atmosphere and obtaining supplies for our weekend in the wilderness. Dinner that night was along the wharf at a restaurant called il Lido, where we sampled the native fare: kangaroo meat kebabs, freshly caught barramundi and a selection of the local bottled ales. We picked our plates clean.

Darwin is surrounded by an array of national parks, nature reserves, and conservation areas. We decided to spend our two days and two nights of camping in Litchfield National Park as it was only 100 kilometers southwest of Darwin. Including myself and my husband, we were a group of six. The two couples we were traveling with had decided to rent campervans equipped with small gas stoves, squat fridges, and narrow beds. We took a different route, opting instead to rent old-fashioned camping equipment from a local business as well as a small car. Driving along the narrow highway, I wondered what the pros and cons of each camping style would be. Outside my window was a vast tricolor landscape: red earth, spring green trees, and blistering blue skies.

Florence Falls

Our first stop upon reaching the outskirts of the park was at the magnetic termite mounds. Built by thousands of termites, these monoliths stand several meters tall and, amazingly, are oriented north-south for optimal climate control. We then took the shady, creek-side path to Florence Falls, a picturesque waterfall that spills into a plunge pool. After trekking through the high heat of the afternoon, leaping into that crystal clear swimming hole was unspeakably refreshing. Bottles of local beer in hand, we whiled away the day here as well as a short distance away at the Buley Rock Pools, a lazy cascade that links a series of natural shallow pools. Every year Litchfield National Park attracts over 260,000 visitors and though a number of other tourists (both Australian and foreign) were present, these lush sites never felt too crowded.

Campsites could be found throughout the park, each with their own set of rules and amenities. Some allow motor homes while some only allowed campervans or old-fashioned tents. Almost all sites have public bathrooms that offer clean toilets (with toilet paper!), sinks with potable water, and several showers. There is a minimal fee for camping overnight and guests are trusted to deposit their dues in locked boxes posted around the area. The grounds near Wangi Falls provided us with a three-pronged campsite perfect for our group and just as we were pulling in, we met a good omen: a wallaroo. Smaller than a kangaroo but larger than a wallaby, these gregarious creatures could be spied hopping through the brush throughout the whole park.

While the others set up a table and chairs between the campervans, we pitched our two-man tent and unrolled our swags. A nearby picnic area provided a grill for our burgers, sausages, and ears of corn, and dinner was lively. There was a call for s’mores and so we built a small fire on the sandy ground. Lacking graham crackers, Hershey’s chocolate bars, and jumbo American marshmallows, we improvised with what we had been able to find at the Woolworths in Darwin: digestive biscuits, bars of Lindt milk chocolate, and a packet of squat pink and white marshmallows sporting a thin coat of sugar. Not quite the s’mores I had growing up, but not bad.

Chopper's Den

The night was broiling and sleep was an erratic, sweaty affair. While our tent had netted windows that allowed a breeze in, the campervans were stifling. However, they were mighty helpful at breakfast. Their fridges and kitchenware were invaluable; a cooler couldn’t have kept our meat and milk from spoiling in the outback’s brutal heat and I don’t know where we would have rented pans and spatulas during our short stay.

We set off for the majestic Wangi Falls at midmorning but were prevented from our much-desired swim due to a recent crocodile sighting and so trekked to the Tolmer Falls lookout instead. It was a hot, dry hike through the bush. Sandstone and quartzite had formed blocky, colorful shapes and sharp cliff faces. Far below the viewing platform were pools as bright and clear as green glass. After a quick lunch of sandwiches, we embarked on the trail to the Cascades waterfalls, a hike with more challenging and varied terrain: dense rainforest, leech-populated streams, layers of red rock, and desert plains.

Our choice of campsite for that night, the Florence Falls area, didn’t have any barbecues but the campervans’ stovetop cookers worked in a pinch for dinner and also for the following morning’s breakfast. Not long after washing up, my husband and I bundled our gear and bid our friends goodbye. We would meet them at the airport later; there was one more thing I wanted to do in Darwin before we left.

Nestled in the center of the city, Crocosaurus Cove is home to a number of prehistorically large crocodiles, including Burt, the star of Crocodile Dundee, and I intended to swim with one. Clad in my bikini and a pair of goggles, I climbed into a mesh and plexiglass cylinder (comfortingly named the Cage of Death) and was lowered into the den of Chopper, who was over 80 years old and missing his two front claws thanks to battles with other crocodiles in the wild. Despite the thick barrier, it was impossible not to feel awed, small and extremely edible next to Chopper’s monstrous, lithe form. My pre-Australia Internet research had instructed me to fight back should I find myself caught in a crocodile’s jaws, but as I swam alongside several tons of muscled reptile, the very thought of struggling seemed ludicrous. It just goes to show that there is only so much the Internet can teach you about the world; at some point you’ve got to get out there and tackle it yourself.

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The Nature of Sri Lanka

Published on November 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

How would you describe your ideal travel destination? Tropical beaches or crisp mountains? Adventurous hikes or luxe spas? Exquisite food or cultural wonders? Even if you chose all of the above, Sri Lanka fits the bill. As it were, my friends and I decided to make nature and wildlife the primary focus of our ten-day trip around the island nation. We were not disappointed.

Sri Lanka has excellent roads and for a multi-city tour like ours, a driver was by far the best option for getting around. Our trip began at dawn in Negombo, a coastal city seven kilometers north of Colombo, where we observed the bustling outdoor fish market in action. Brightly painted fishing boats filled the green waters of the Laccadive Sea and the docks were busy with butchers expertly lopping the heads off fish larger than me. Along the 100 km long canal, groups of men and women could be spotted shaking nets to loosen tiny fish, which danced and glittered under the watchful eyes of cats and crows. When I smiled at people, they smiled back.

We drove from Kalpitiya (on the west coast and perfect for dolphin watching) inland to Sigiriya, and it was impossible to resist pulling over to sample the myriad of freshly picked local fruit. Bright hanging bunches of apples. Small, fragrant bananas. Piles of fresh pineapples, durians, and jackfruit. If you’ve never tasted a rambutan, mangosteen, or king coconut, this is the place to do it. Painted Buddhas, white stupas, and pastel-colored churches flew by our windows, but our attention was seized by the mammoth Lion Rock in the distance. 200 meters high and shot through with red and white layers of stone, the boulder can be seen for miles. Visitors climb to the summit via narrow staircases, passing by acrobatic families of monkeys, colorful frescoes, and the Mirror Wall, which once upon a time was so well polished that the king could see himself as he walked alongside it. A sudden squall hit when we were two-thirds into our ascent, but we pressed on and up through the whipping winds and pouring rain, and we were rewarded shortly after reaching the grassy top. The storm dissipated and the fog rolled back to reveal an endless, deep green landscape stretching out around us in all directions.

We spared a few hours for Kandy, a lively little city that encapsulated Sri Lanka’s easy blend of modernity and heritage. Men and women wore both western and traditional clothing. Post offices, police stations, medical centers, banks, and the public bus system all appeared readily available across the country. Yet there was a refreshing lack of a dominant fast food presence. For the next leg of our journey, our van climbed out of the tropical jungles up to the misty tea plantations nestled near the cool summits of Nuwara Eliya’s mountain ranges. Tamil women moved through the winding rows of Assam bushes with practiced ease, plucking the young leaves and shoving handfuls into the sacks on their backs. Though there are a number of smaller inns and lodges balanced on the mountainsides, I suggest splurging on a stay at the Heritance Tea Factory, which has been refurbished into an elegant hotel that retains almost all of the factory’s original 1930s infrastructure.

The next morning was crisp and sunny. Though I didn’t think it was possible, our little van climbed even higher, up into and above the clouds, where we tackled the nine km World’s End hike across the Horton Plains. We marveled at the herds of elk in the vast grasslands and the proximity of the clouds to the dense forests. The trail led to a vantage point perched on a sheer cliff drop overlooking a rolling basin ringed by mountains that lurched into the sky.

Horton Plains (1)

Although we had retained our driver, Upali, for the entirety of the trip, we couldn’t resist taking a train back down from tea country. Though not the fastest form of transportation in the country, it is without a doubt the most scenic. Our blue locomotive raced through corridors of lush foliage that would suddenly give way to views of immense valleys dotted with terraced farms and varicolored villages, surrounded by infinite waves of highlands. Sri Lanka is a rainbow of greens: emerald Assam tea bushes, pale new sprouts in vegetable patches, dark and gargantuan forests that run rampant up steep mountainsides.

In the southeastern town of Tissamaharama that night, we went to sleep early so as to rise before dawn the following morning for an all-day safari in Yala National Park. It was a long, dusty, adrenaline-fueled day spent in an open-air jeep hunting for a glimpse of a wild leopard. We were lucky enough to find one napping in the crook of a tree while locked in a hilariously quiet traffic jam of jeeps all trying to get close without disturbing the creature. For me however, the real treat was witnessing a family of elephants (including two infants) splash in the mud of a reservoir in the hot afternoon. There were a number of other animal sightings and we didn’t leave the park until after sunset.

Our next destination was the southern city of Galle, a historic colonial town cradled inside the barricades of a Dutch fort. Engulfed in such picturesque scenery, it’s easy to be lulled by the waving palms and clean beaches, but the memory of the devastating 2004 tsunami lingers. Just off the coast, portions of the old road could be seen in the sparkling surf. Memorials could be found in every town and park we’d visited. Cemeteries were full of tombstones constructed from debris. Chunks of wrecked houses stood along the shore, now veiled by creeping vines. These somber markers were a reminder that behind this natural paradise was a grim and difficult past.

For our final day we again awoke at sunrise, this time to travel by tuk tuk to the harbor in Mirissa to set sail with Raja and the Whales, a tour company I found professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. They located a trio of blue whales and brought us in close without disrespecting the giant creatures’ space. Before heading to the airport we popped by the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, which was obliterated in 2004 and rebuilt thanks to donations. After sunset, we brought precious three-day-old turtles to the seashore and watched them scamper from our hands towards the pounding surf that called them home.

Alongside its layered history and colorful culture, Sri Lanka nurtures a rich and varied natural world: feisty fruit and serene landscapes, safaris in prairies and at sea, cool peaks and steamy beaches. We easily could have spent a week in every place we visited. I’m already planning my second trip.

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Division and Illusions in North Korea, the World’s Most Inexplicable Nation

Published on September 3, 2013 in Young & Global Magazine:

Arch of Reunification

On an overcast afternoon in August, I stood on the upper balcony of Panmungak, the main North Korean building in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), gazing over narrow, blue buildings. Dead center between Panmungak and the South Korean building called the Freedom House Pagoda, I could see the thick line of concrete that splits the two Koreas. Though we were a mere 70 kilometers from Seoul, it felt like we were on another planet.

Miss Choi, our tour guide, appeared at my elbow. She was a curvy North Korean woman in her thirties, but beyond that I won’t describe her or provide her real name lest I unwittingly get her into trouble. With a placid smile on her face, she led our group down the stairs, out of Panmungak, and across the quiet compound to the squat cyan buildings.

The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements, but on that day it was devoid of life, save for stiff soldiers and nonchalant sparrows. Since visitors are forbidden from interacting with tourists from the other side, the area operates on something of a timeshare. As we explored the sparse negotiation space that sat squarely on the demarcation line, Miss Choi recited historic moments and explained that the main obstacle to the reunification of the Korean peninsula was the posting of American troops at the DMZ.

“Our country is divided. But maybe one day soon you can have breakfast in Pyongyang, lunch in Kaesong, and dinner in Seoul,” she finished wistfully.

The members of our tour group glanced at each other, but no one moved to put forth a conflicting opinion. Two days earlier, in the Beijing airport, a representative from Koryo Tours had warned us to expect such discrepancies. North Koreans have a genuine pride in their country, he had explained, and though they know Westerners have different versions of their country’s history, they simply believe we’re lying. Or ignorant. After all, why would our version of history be truer than what they’ve been told their whole lives? Would you believe a North Korean who told you Abraham Lincoln was a Nazi?

It was in Beijing—one of only four airports in the world that can fly you to North Korea—where I had first met the small group of adventurous travelers who would be my companions on this trip. I knew nothing about these people except that they were expats working in Singapore, and their curiosity about North Korea matched my own. It must, because we would be among only 3,000 or 4,000 non-Chinese tourists to visit the reclusive nation that year. For me, although I had moved to Singapore a mere five days earlier to reunite with my fiancé after a six-month separation, I was curious enough to take this trip he had planned, even if wasn’t quite the romantic reunion vacation I was expecting.

The representative from Koryo Tours had also given us guidelines for our visit. We were not allowed to photograph construction sites or people, and we were forbidden from wandering away from our guide. While it wasn’t impossible to sneak photos or creep off to out-of-bounds areas, Miss Choi had the power to restrict the planned activities for our trip if she judged our group to be unruly. Most importantly, later she would be the one to pay for any and all of our misbehavior. So we mindfully asked whether pictures were permitted and followed her like quiet schoolchildren.

View of Freedom House Pagoda and Joint Security Area from North Korean side

Freedom House Pagoda and Joint Security Area viewed from the DPRK side of the DMZ

A short drive from the DMZ, a military lookout point stood at the peak of a hill, which our secondhand tour bus struggled to climb. Inside the little building, a North Korean colonel in full uniform gave us a history lesson in front of a large painted map. He then gestured for us to follow him outside, where a row of telescopes allowed us to peer out at the peaceful, grassy landscape, riddled with silent landmines. Beyond a tiny wall marking the border, military bases flew South Korea’s flag. I only half-listened to the colonel’s stilted English; I was skeptical of the veracity of his facts and more interested in studying his appearance. With his large cap and swamp green military garb, he resembled a Chinese officer from the 1960s. I noticed that his bars of honor were actually a multicolored square of plastic, and I wondered if he had seen a picture of a decorated official and endeavored to appear equally important. Affixed directly above this facsimile was a red, flag-shaped pin that featured Kim Il Sung’s smiling face.

Every adult I had seen in North Korea sported this red pin on his or her left breast, sometimes accompanied by a second red pin featuring the image of Kim Jong-il. Miss Choi said the pins were worn simply out of a desire to show respect; there was no mention of compulsion. However, I later learned that the law used to be: forget to wear your pin once, receive a warning; forget it a second time and face punishment.

Much like the colonel’s illusion of military honor, I discovered that the nearby city of Kaesong was also designed to appear more than it was. Houses of solid concrete had brick patterns painted on their exteriors, and concrete walls sported motifs to mimic stone ones. Kaesong was the only city to change control from South to North Korea because of the Korean War. As such, it is the southernmost city in North Korea. Its name translates to “Triumph”, but it is a town of worn buildings and of families fractured by the 38th Parallel.

Atop a hill, a towering bronze figure of Kim Il Sung gazed down a steep road into the little city. Despite the fact that we arrived into Kaesong at 5:30pm and rush hour was in full swing, the streets were scantily populated. As we would for all dinners on the trip, we ate in a nice restaurant filled with only Western tourists, and it soon became apparent that the locals didn’t make a habit of eating out. We slept in a traditional inn, sleeping under mosquito nets in the heavy darkness of North Korea’s nightly nationwide blackout.

The following day, the drive from Kaesong to the capital of Pyongyang took two hours on Reunification Highway, which had no lane lines, but was peppered with guarded checkpoints. Except for the occasional truck or other tour bus, the highway was empty. Tunnels were devoid of lighting. Cornfields lined the road, as well as flat plains in all shades of green and brown merging into distant mountains. We passed tanned men and women on bicycles, brown cows tied up to graze, children bathing in shallow rivers. It’s easy to forget in such a strange country –especially one so ideologically at odds with the Western world – that people are just people everywhere.

A plush pink charm of the whole Korean peninsula swung from the bus’s rearview mirror as Miss Choi gave us lessons on her country’s history and culture. Once again I was struck not only by the bizarre interpretations of historical events but how much weight they still carried in the present. It seemed to me that the people of North Korea obsessively clung to past slights and lorded over past triumphs, while the rest of the world had long since moved on.

The history North Koreans tell is an idealistic, childlike version of the world. Their heroes are brave, their leaders compassionate and wise, their enemies evil and uncomplicated. The big questions have been answered unambiguously. But looking out over the serene landscape I wondered about the people starving somewhere hidden from view. Did they still love their country, their Eternal President, their Great General? Or was the illusion shattered? Were they heartbroken?

Before arriving in Pyongyang, we pulled over to admire the Arch of Reunification, which straddled the highway itself. The concrete monument consisted of two women in traditional Korean dress—one representing the North and the other the South—leaning forward to jointly uphold a sphere emblazoned with the complete land of Korea.

Looking at the Arch, I didn’t know where the future would take this inexplicable nation, but I knew it wouldn’t be to the joyous and peaceful reunification the North Koreans were convinced was imminent. I also knew that anything I said to the contrary would at best fall on deaf ears, and at worst endanger the safety of our sweet-natured tour guide, so I simply took a photograph of the monument before we moved on.

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Five Mistakes Not to Make: Ireland

Kinsale, County Cork

I might be a little biased, being from Ireland and all, but it is one of the most amazing places on the planet. Certainly we have our problems (economic recession, political squabbles, a tendency towards alcoholism, not to mention a lot of rainy days) but none of them have quenched the Irish people’s love of a good time with friends old and new. So here are a few mistakes you should absolutely avoid:

#1 Do not believe weather forecasts, especially in summer. For days before my wedding in Kinsale, my mother checked AccuWeather every hour and every hour it predicted something totally different. Torrential downpours covered the county that day and we ended up with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Your best bet is to cover your bases. No matter what the month, bring jeans, a sweater, and always (ALWAYS) bring a raincoat. And no, an umbrella alone will not suffice. Ireland is an island at the mercy of the winds of the Atlantic and horizontal rain is a de facto national treasure. Also, don’t be surprised if you feel sunshine and rain on your face at the same time — it’s where we get all those rainbows from.

#2 Don’t get all your food and pub recommendations from the guidebooks or them internets. Most Irish people like to talk and you’d be amazed at how enthusiastically they’ll suggest where to go and what to eat and who to talk to.

#3 Give yourself enough time. There’s a lot to see in Ireland but it’s not a country that lends itself to rushing. Keep in mind this is a nation where herds of sheep still cause traffic delays. Some international destinations are more enjoyable when you have a set plan to follow but Ireland lends itself to a more flexible game plan. If you’re here to tick off castles and landmarks on a list of Must See Things, then you will inevitably miss out on the casual, spontaneous atmosphere of the country. So in addition to budgeting time to leisurely stroll around, I suggest you also…

#4 Be willing to get lost, particularly around the countryside. The motorways were updated splendidly a few years ago and my annual 4-hour drive from Tipperary to Dublin has been reduced to 2 hours, which is phenomenal when you’re a local. However, visitors miss out because it used to be that any trip between major cities would lead you through a myriad of small, brightly painted towns. While Dublin and Cork and Limerick have their dodgy alleyways same as any other big city, the countryside is laden with hidden gems. So go exploring. Get lost. Ask directions. Meet some people.

#5 Lastly, skip the beaches. Some countries are known for their warm turquoise waters and soft white sand; Ireland is not one of them. Unless you’re into (and sufficiently skilled at) sailing or surfing, I would suggest you instead visit the breathtaking cliffs that line the coasts.

After visiting Ireland, it’s not really hard to see why it tops so many lists of places to visit. From the fresh, delicious food to the famously hospitable people to the lush rolling landscape to the music and literature to the aeons of history and architecture, there is literally something for everyone. Except maybe people intent on getting a tan.

Top Five Travel Tips for Exploring Asia

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

There are plenty of reasons why Singapore is a great place to live. One of them is how easy it is to leave for a short break. Changi Airport has consistently topped lists of the world’s best airports for the last two decades and those with residency status move through it very quickly, but there are still a number of obstacles that can trip you up when setting off to explore Southeast Asia. To help you avoid my mistakes and oversights, here are my top five tips for newcomers to Singapore who are looking to discover the riches of the continent around us.

Number One: Visas!

Visa costs and requirements vary greatly throughout Asia, so right after (or even before) you buy your flight tickets, hit the website of your destination’s embassy to figure out what you’ll need. Many nations surrounding Singapore will allow you to buy an On-Arrival Tourist Visa but some require a Letter of Approval from the local embassy to do this and most can only be purchased in American dollars (and sometimes only in new bills). There can also be extra requirements, like a minimum number of blank passport pages. Bottom line: do your research in advance and prevent a debacle at the airport.

Number Two: Know the Health Risks

Malaria is a year-round risk throughout Southeast Asia but it needn’t prevent you from going where you want to go. A general physician in Singapore can usually provide anti-malarial tablets but be aware that you have to start the regimen a few days before your trip, so give yourself enough time. However, the most frequently reported illness among visitors to Southeast Asia is the highly unglamorous traveler’s diarrhea. While abroad, one of my greatest joys is trying dishes in restaurants frequented by the locals but this can admittedly be risky. So, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to chowing down. Don’t drink or brush your teeth with the local water. Be sure to check that the seals of any bottles of water you buy are unbroken. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables as they have likely been washed in the local water; the exception is fruit you peel, like bananas or oranges. Be wary of how foods with a high risk of salmonella—like eggs or chicken—are prepared; opt for fried instead of steamed or boiled if you’re uncertain.

Number Three: Take More Cash than You Think You’ll Need

I will be the first to confess that I rely far too much on a credit card and not enough on cash. Take my word for it: it is no fun wasting your precious time in an exotic paradise desperately searching for an ATM. But even if you’re not me and you calculate your trip’s expenses down to the penny and take out enough foreign notes in advance, there will always be an unexpected cost somewhere down the line. For example, did you know you need to pay an airport tax in cash when you leave Indonesia?  So, in addition to taking way more money than you need, I would also suggest you don’t exchange your extra baht, dong, or kip until you’re safely back on Singaporean concrete, where at least the fees will be in a currency you’re used to.

Number Four: Invest in a Necessities Kit

It’s easier to have a little travel bag of necessities on hand instead of rifling through your cabinets for 100ml toiletries before every trip. Ideally an essentials kit for Southeast Asia should include: sunscreen, insect repellant, Purell, painkillers, band aids, anti-malarials, Pepto Bismal or the equivalent, wet wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, extra medication and miniature versions of your normal routine (shampoo, face wash, shaving cream, etc.). And don’t forget the number one necessity: tissues. Much of Southeast Asia operates on a system of BYO toilet paper and you will come to cherish the packets of tissues you cleverly brought with you.

Singapore’s pharmacies are pretty good about carrying travel-sized toiletries, which were once a convenience and are now a necessity if you want to step foot on a plane without checking a bag. And when you’re only flying a few hours to stay for a few days it is worth neither the hassle nor the cost to check a bulky piece of luggage. Pack sparingly and smartly.

Number Five: Relax

I’ve heard a lot of scary stories about Asia from a lot of people who’ve never been. I actually had a friend frantically warn me about a disease in Papua New Guinea that causes a person to laugh themselves to death. A quick internet search revealed that this disease is transmitted via cannibalism, which I don’t generally practice. What I have found from traveling around Asia is a lot of breathtaking sights, delicious food and friendly people.

There has yet to be a country I regret visiting. Sure, the salmonella poisoning in Myanmar wasn’t all that fun, but the Burmese were some of the most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. It’s up to you what you get out of travel. Not every trip will go completely to plan (actually I can guarantee that almost none of them will) but if you keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit, there also won’t be a single trip you don’t learn something about yourself from.

Happy travels!

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The Illusion of Pyongyang

Published on July 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Pyongyang title

“You will leave with more questions than answers,” the representative from Koryo Tours said brightly. We were in a café in the Beijing airport, one of only four airports that will fly you into Pyongyang, and we were all listening closely as she instructed us on what not to do after arriving in North Korea.

“Do not insult or criticize the Kims, even as a joke. North Koreans are genuinely very proud of their country and they revere their leaders. Ask before you take any pictures. It’s up to your Korean tour guides how much you’re allowed to see and if you’re sneaking photos you’re not supposed to, they can easily restrict where you go. Plus, you might get them into real trouble if you break the rules. The better behaved you are, the more they’ll trust you and the more you’ll be allowed to do. No wandering off on your own or leaving the hotel unsupervised. Though I doubt that will be much of a problem… The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Daedong River.”

Almost every tour in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is coordinated by the government-run Korean International Travel Company and it was their guides who met us at Pyongyang’s barebones airport to escort us to this infamous hotel. It is one of the city’s most well-known and these days it is regularly packed with Chinese and Western visitors, including a smattering of Americans. The DPRK began allowing American passport holders to obtain tourist visas in 2010 and since then, the country has become an intriguing destination for adventurers longing to escape the beaten path. However, Americans are still a minority among tourists and as North Koreans are regularly coached in the evildoings of the “U.S. imperialist aggressors,” Americans more than other visitors tend to be peppered with questions by their guides.

Nowhere is this anti-Americanism more apparent than in the rusting hull of the USS Pueblo, which is an American technical research ship captured in 1968 and currently docked in the Pyongyang Harbor as a floating museum. Visitors are treated to a brief film that summarizes the 11-month foreign policy debacle that followed the vessel’s capture and proudly concludes that after President Johnson begrudgingly issued a letter of apology, “the world unanimously agreed that the reign of the U.S. Imperialists had been shattered.” As I clambered off the ship, I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I had learned anything at all about the USS Pueblo incident in school. As far as I could tell, the issue had been mostly forgotten about. Despite the regular teaching of American and Japanese atrocities, as we were led around the sparse city our group was frequently hailed by uniformed children calling out cheerful greetings in English. Thanks to its mandatory, free education the DPRK has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Arirang Mass Games

Not only are all citizens taught basic English in school, adults are highly encouraged to continue their education at Pyongyang’s central library, the Grand People’s Study House. We peeked in on a class and saw one of the only computers we would see in the country (running Windows 97) with an example sentence on the monitor that read: “How much do these weapons cost?” These undertones of discontinuity are what make Pyongyang a captivating and slightly unnerving travel destination. Just when you start to think you understand the city or presume that it’s not so different from other major cities after all, you find nothing is as it seems. You realize there isn’t a single advertisement anywhere. Or you notice that what appeared to be a stone wall is actually solid cement with a stone motif painted on by hand. Or you grasp that a capital city of this size should have a far larger population bustling about. All of this adds up to give Pyongyang the atmosphere of a movie set, especially since much of what you are allowed to see has been carefully prepared or vetted in advance.

As in all stores, factories, concert halls, subway cars, and so forth, in the classroom at the Grand People’s Study House a pair of portraits kept watch over us all. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are omnipresent. Every monument depicts one or both of them. Every war memorial makes reference to them. Every museum is either about their lives or named after them. Their faces look out at you from pins on the chest of every adult you see. Orchestral musicians at the crescendo of a performance in the Moranbong Theatre cry out an accolade to the Kims. Colossal mosaics illustrating their deeds stand tall, colorful, and clean amidst Pyongyang’s shabby apartment buildings. But undoubtedly the most spectacular tribute to the Kim dynasty is the Arirang Mass Games.

Held in the world’s largest stadium, it is described on the Koryo Tours website as “a synchronized socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100,000 participants in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package.” It’s breathtaking to experience the live performance, the immensity of which videos fail to capture. 20,000 schoolchildren fill the half of the stadium opposite the audience and use colored squares to create a fluid series of background images. Meanwhile, in the foreground, endless waves of singing women, flying ribbons, marching men, multi-colored banners, children on unicycles, and at one point giant pig puppets pantomime historical events, such as how the DPRK’s military triumphed over the U.S. and South Korea in the ‘Fatherland Liberation War’ and of how Kim Jong-Il singlehandedly modernized the agricultural industry. It is a glorious, hour and a half long homage to an almost completely false history.

The Mass Games—like the rest of Pyongyang’s proud displays—reveal not only how accepted this alternate Kim-centered view of the past is but also how fastidiously celebrated and respected it is. As a tourist, there is very little you can say to alter their views. After all, would you believe a foreigner who told you that everything you learned all your life about your country’s history from your parents and schoolteachers is completely wrong? The only thing you can do is politely observe and genuinely marvel at the show. You will leave with more questions than answers.

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