Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Beijing

Yes it has been a long time since I last posted. I apologize for my lack of diligence over the last couple weeks updating the site as I have been to a number of places since writing about my first day in Beijing including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, New York, Barcelona, and now I currently sit in a hotel room across from the Museo del Prado in the heart of Madrid. The tank is near empty as you can imagine. So back to the story...

The weather continued to be as cooperative as one could ask for with clear blue skies taking hold throughout the heart of Beijing. The agenda on that Monday (December 6th) of my one week stay in the capital of the People's Republic of China was to see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Wángfǔjǐng Street.

Following an early wake-up, my Chinese national friend and I walked to the train to take us to the heart of Beijing where we would find the aforementioned attractions of the day. It did not take long before the two of us were walking by the famous Beijing Concert hall located in close proximity to Tiananmen Square. It really struck a chord with me as we reached Tiananman as it holds the famous portrait of Mao Zedong where there has always been a painting of the Communist since 1949. Regarded as the most important painting in China, it was at this point that it really hit me that I was in China, a euphoric moment indeed.

Before entering the world's largest surviving palace complex, I noticed on the way that two girls about the same age as myself (who I later found out were both very nice people from Australia) were taking pictures of this little Asian girl. It appeared she was the daughter of two individuals from another part of China who were touring the palace, as well. The two Australians then approached the Chinese couple and asked to take a picture with their daughter. Now I have nothing against Australians and while I do consider myself a backpacker I am in some ways a tourist so I do get thrown into this statement in some respects, too. I really don't appreciate seeing things of this nature in which tourists treat children of the country they are visiting like props. It left a foul taste in my mouth as I watched this scene play itself out before my eyes. I'm not saying I am perfect, nor the ideal tourist, but respect for wherever one may visit should be obliged by all visitors (or at the least the effort would be a nice gesture).

We headed into the Forbidden City to see the many ancient Chinese structures of this former palace for a number of dynasties that held rule in this country. Putting the masses of tourists aside, I saw massive open spaces before impressive Chinese structures full of color and unique designs to anything I have seen in the Western world. Inside many of these buildings were places where the emperors prayed, held court, and resided along with their family. Let me interrupt myself for a moment by saying yes, I am wearing the same Communist hat in this photo as at the Great Wall of China. It was very funny because of the reception I got wearing it in both China and Vietnam (quite supportive as you can fathom) plus it was really cold and windy and it was most suitable for the job. Back to my line of thought: this complex was huge! At times we got lost jumping from one hall to another palace to a corner tower while getting harassed at times by shopkeepers trying to sell us paintings or Chinese flags and such. People kept coming up to me asking if I needed a tour guide and we just would tell them that my Chinese friend was filling that role to make them go away and even then they wouldn't leave so easily. The funniest part about calling my friend a tour guide was that he had not been to the Forbidden City in what I remember him saying was at least ten years if not more. Funny how that works since it is only a ten minute train ride from his house, then again when was the last time I went to the top of the Empire State building? (three years ago). To those in Singapore, "same same but different," to those not, read the first definition here

After navigating through the open plazas, ancient buildings, and flocks of tourists for a couple hours, we left the Forbidden City to see the famous and open spaces of Tiananmen Square. Remember back to my last post that I made ages ago when I said the city of Beijing is structured in a ring system? Well I also mentioned that this ring system is centered around what has become the largest city square in the world, Tiananmen Square. It holds various monuments, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and museums about numerous elements of China's history. While many people were in the square at the time the two of us chose to walk around, the area is so spacious it is barely noticeable. It even gave perspective on the Forbidden City as we walked across Tiananman Square. When I turned back, you could still see the portrait of Mao staring back at us with the same expressionless look on his face knowing that behind that very gate stood an enormous, magnificent, and elaborate palace that had occupied our entire morning. With all this open space, it is estimated that it can accommodate up to 600,000 people, surpassing even what Mao had hoped for during his existence.

It was following some quality time spent in the exact center of Beijing that my friend and I decided to walk down the road to the well-known Wángfǔjǐng Street. The site of various shops and food stalls is heavily traveled by both locals and foreigners, alike. En route to this destination, two girls, both probably a couples years older than me, approached us to try and make conversation for a bit. We played along with their charade for a bit, but it became very clear that they were looking to lure us to a coffee shop that had hired them to bring in unsuspecting tourists. So after much conversation, my friend clearly stated we weren't going to any coffee shop and had no interest in being scammed. The girls got the picture and left us alone from that point forward. It is something I had read about as a possible scam I may run into in China and my friend knew all too well as a local. We even got them to believe that he was from Chinatown in New York City even though they thought "[he] looks like a local." When it was all said and done, the joke was on them.

We walked through this tiny street and had many local delicacies like mutton kebabs and the not so popular sheep's stomach. In general, one could say that any living organism ever to walk this planet could be found on a stick here. This includes scorpions, spiders, sea horses, starfish, and many different types of insects. I hope I didn't ruin your appetite. The most disgusting thing I did end up trying was stir-fried liver. Fortunately, we didn't have to pay for it as my Chinese friend taught these two guys running a stall how to say the foods they were selling in English in exchange for a free dish. Without hesitation, I will say they got the better end of the deal. They can now attract not just local customers but foreigners as well, meanwhile I simply regret trying such a gross delicacy. Otherwise, I enjoyed some great dishes and saw even better displays of fruits, pastries, and meat assortments.

Let me remind all of you that this was only my second day in Beijing we are talking about. Another day with non-stop sightseeing from start to finish, seeing some of the most incredible attractions China and planet Earth has to offer. To cap off the day, I had been joking with my friend about being crammed in the Beijing subway during rush hour for a couple days; well I got what I asked for.
As you can see here, there was no personal space to be found on the way back to my friend's apartment, not even the tiniest bit. Based on what I have heard, I don't even want to know what it is like riding mass transportation in Tokyo. At least it was a relatively clean and efficient system.

More to come about the last couple days in Beijing!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peking

My semester abroad in Singapore came and went. Four months of studying, traveling, and socializing concluded last week when I finished my last final exam on Wednesday, December 1st. That night was the last time that many of us exchange students had the chance to say our goodbyes on the bridge at Clarke Quay. I don't really know how it started, but at one point in the night, people began to jump off the bridge into murky waters below to celebrate the end of the semester. Not being in Singapore anymore, I can confess that I became one of those individuals that took the plunge into Singapore waters. Considering it was another hot and humid night and everyone that did it before me said it was worth it, I figured why not. I made the jump with four others (don't worry mom it isn't that high up) and I must say it was a lot of fun as your body is in free-fall prior to hitting the water's surface. So now I can say that if everybody is jumping off a bridge, I would too.

After two days to clean up my room, pack for my three weeks of traveling, and catch up on sleep, my friend from Switzerland and I headed for Changi International Airport one last time for our 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, December 4th to Beijing.

I had just pulled an all-nighter to finish packing up and was absolutely exhausted in the cab ride to the airport, yet the driver was really testing me at 7:00 in the morning. The man, most likely in his fifties, asked both us where we were from for the sake of conversation. When my friend said he was from Switzerland, the driver made some small talk that was mostly positive about the country, nothing out of the box. However, when it was brought up that I am American, the man started going off on how the United States is a terrible country because of X, Y, and Z citing false information to support his claims. I chose to just sit there and close my eyes as the man rambled on and on for an extended period of time expressing his hatred for our country. I will just say he is lucky it was early in the morning and exhausted; I may be upset with the current state of our government, but you don't go off trash talking someone's country in front of them like that. Not the best start to the last leg of my travels in Asia.

I left the taxi in a bad mood following the episode in the taxi; no matter, the two of us continued our travels through Changi Airport. For the last time, I made my way through Singapore customs to go to the terminal where we would board our Air China flight. Of course, this was not to be a normal morning for myself as while I was waiting for my Swiss friend to get a tax refund from the Singapore GST, a magician came over and started pestering me to watch him do a trick. I let him do his thing and eventually got a funny picture out of it (it wasn't taken on my camera so hopefully I will see it again in the near future). Right as the magician walked away, two people came up to my friend and me asking us some questions for a survey about the magician and the rest of the airport. I really just wanted to run away and get on the plane. Thankfully, the people at the check-in counter had put us in the emergency row so we had ample leg room so I was able to sleep five of the six hours we were in the air.

I was now, and still am as I write this, in China. It feels weird saying that, especially when I think back to a couple years ago when I thought seeing this part of the world would happen, but not so soon. I had no idea what Beijing would be like excluding all of the great things I had heard about the capital from friends back at NUS who had traveled here previously.

The two of us walked through Beijing International Airport, expanded only a couple years ago for the Olympics, to meet up with our Chinese friend and his dad who live right in Beijing. Once we met up with our friend, we made ways toward the city to throw our stuff down somewhere and head out for a late dinner. The moment we walked outside the airport, cold air immediately began to blow with a fury against us. How good it felt to finally feel a cool breeze for the first time since climbing Mount Kinabalu. To give you an idea with how cold we are talking for Beijing at this time of year, the city is just about the same latitude as New York City, so not unbearable, but definitely worthy of a winter jacket. As we drove towards the heart of Beijing, pollution was very visible in the air not making for the best first impression one could ask for. Luckily, the coming days would be much windier resulting in little to no pollution hovering over the city.

Our Chinese friend's dad drove us to the hotel where my Swiss bud would be staying before heading out to have a traditional Chinese dinner on famous "Ghost Street." Before dinner, though, there was the business of getting some winter clothes after having been near the equator in Singapore for the last four months. While the shopkeepers spoke English, my Chinese national bud ended up doing the majority of the haggling. I eventually got a decent knock off of a Billabong full-zip for 105 yuan or about fifteen U.S. dollars, not too bad. Then we headed to the restaurant, the four of us met up with our friend's mom for what would be a splendid Chinese meal. It was evident from the outset that this was no touristy kind of place as my Swiss friend and I were the only Caucasians in the entire establishment. This was truly how the locals went out to eat in Beijing; the various foods we ate were all delectable from steamed cauliflower to scrumptious dumplings and even some kind of very tasty fish. I managed to survive the meal only using chopsticks, but at times it did get difficult picking up certain types of food namely rice. Hopefully, my skills with the sticks will improve as the week progresses.

Once we finished eating, the three of us being an American with Swiss and Chinese nationals, drove around the city for a bit to see Beijing at night. The structure of Peking is based on a ring system with Tiananman Square being the center. Different rings have been formed by huge highways around this area that indicate how far from the city center you are (i.e. the second ring is the closest enclosure to Tiananman followed by the third ring and so on). We drove through Tiananman Square and saw the perimeter of the Forbidden City that bears the portrait of the People’s Republic of China’s founder, Mao Zedong.

We dropped off our Swiss friend at the hotel and headed back to where my Chinese friend lived to sleep off the day prior to our journey through the Great Wall the next day.

The next morning, we got an early start in order to reach the Great Wall a little before lunchtime. Depending on which part of the wall one would want to go on, the Great Wall of China can be anywhere from ninety minutes to three hours away from the center of Beijing. With that in mind, we woke up at 8 A.M. on Sunday and were out the door by 9:00 A.M. to pick up our friend at the hotel then make ways towards one of the seven wonders of the world.

We reached the bottom of the Badaling section of the Great Wall around midday to see the beginning of this spectacle in person. It was quite euphoric to have finally reached this man-made creation after months of planning and traveling.
When you get up onto the wall, it was a sight for the ages to see the Wall go on for miles and miles stretching across the peaks and valleys in the mountains. The three of us walked along the wall for a couple hours taking in the scenery, which included signage from the 2008 Olympic Games, more of the Great Wall, and mountains that went on to as far as the horizon. I am still impressed with how steep the Great Wall got a certain points since the steepness of the structure matched the contour of the mountains they were built on. It was a little bit of a hike, but our trio reached the highest point of the Wall and looked out to see practically everything. One could not have started off my week in Beijing any better. In addition, I received a text from my mom that UConn had barely beaten USF on our decent from the mountain making for a great day in multiple facets. The only bad part of the whole experience was finding out I had been giving counterfeit money at some point during the last day and a half. Thankfully, it was only a 20 yuan bill (worth about $3), but never before did I have to worry about fake money reaching my wallet.
It was then time to head back to city in order to meet up with our Chinese friend’s parents for dinner once again. For a second night in a row, my Swiss friend and I were in for a real treat. The restaurant we went to was a Chinese Opera house near where they lived. The combination of the amazing dishes of food with the amusing show going on in the background made for a one-of-a-kind experience. I had some of the best tasting food in my entire life including famous Peking duck, squirrelfish, sweet & sour noodles, and fried dumplings. Besides the entertainment taking place on the stage, we saw about thirty guys around the age of 40-50 at tables nearby getting ridiculously drunk. Apparently, they were part of a firm that had recently completed testing for one of, if not the, fastest train in the world. My friend’s parents were explaining to me with the use of my friend as a translator that in Chinese culture, one gains “face” or respect from another through excessively drinking when in celebration. At least, I think that’s what I got out of that conversation. Either way it looked like a bunch of kids my age drinking alcohol like it was water while screaming things in Chinese before chugging what was left in their glass. Definitely made dinner and the entire day that much better.

Don’t think that it was all downhill from here in Beijing. The Great Wall was an out of this world experience, however, Peking has much more to offer including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and Wang Fu Jing Street; all of these attractions were on our itinerary for the next day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 3 of 3)

The huge comfy beds at the hostel made for a very much needed 8+ hours of sleep. After that bus ride from hell, all ten of us had very much been looking forward to some time to heal ourselves from the mental and physical pain endured during the previous night (some people did come out of that bus ride with bruises).

The sleep was good, the complimentary breakfast was up to par, and the views from the roof of the hostel were phenomenal as you could see during the day how Nyaung Shwe was sandwiched in between two large mountain ranges. Since we were to lose one member of our group the next day because of an early final back at NUS, it was in our best interest to get a boat tour of the northern part of the lake that Wednesday.

A little before lunchtime, our group set off in two boats to see Inle Lake. One could not have asked for more perfect weather: sunny skies with giant puffy clouds scattered about complimented by warm weather with relatively little humidity. As the boat pushed through the marshland leading up to the lake, the anticipation was growing to see what was in store for us once the river opened up. It took fifteen minutes before we finally reached the northernmost part of Inle Lake; few words were spoken as we were busy trying to take in the panoramic views on display. Those two mountain ranges that I mentioned before were out in the open as they are split by the gargantuan lake. All around one could see fisherman going about their business in addition to many boats being run by children as young as eight and nine years old. There a handful of other tourist boats that would pass us by, but in general there were very few Westerners around outside of our group. The driver of our boat had us continue forward across the lake towards the many villages on stilts that exist at Inle. I got a feel for how big the lake was as it took roughly thirty minutes before seeing any of these homes above water. There was no shortage of entertainment during this period of time between taking in the landscape and racing the other boat to our destination. As we found out based on our boat travels for the rest of the day, the other boat's driver had no idea where anything was so we always won the race as they had to follow us to get anywhere.

We eventually made it across the northern basin of Inle Lake and sure enough there were houses built one after another on stilts. It was really interesting to be able to watch the people who live there go about their daily routines from afar. Although, as soon as we entered their line of sight, they immediately would stare at us; the older generations did not seem too enthusiastic with our presence while the children appeared very happy and friendly as they would wave to us from their abode, boat, etc. We cruised through the many "streets" that held these different households seeing the infrastructure of how these villages were built. Our first stop of the day was at a sewing shop in town that had many locally made (we think) blankets, bags, articles of clothing, and so on. The owner of the business immediately took us through the store to show us how such goods were made. We walked around from person to person sitting at these wooden contraptions; it looked like it required great precision by an individual to use such machinery to create some of the products we saw for sale. After some of us made a couple purchases at the shop, our guide drove us to the nearby cigar shop. It really was something to watch as three girls were lined up on the ground sitting cross legged methodically churning out one cigar after the next. While it didn't seem as labor intensive as the last shop we were at, it didn't seem like the best of situations to be on the hard wooden floor all day repeating the same short process over and over again.

It was around 3:00 P.M. at this point so the ten of us were taken to a restaurant nearby for some Burmese cuisine*. Following lunch, it was a quick boat ride to the Phaung Daw U Pagoda in the middle of the village. Once we got inside the pagoda, we were presented with an interesting scenario: there was a platform that held sacred golden statues of Buddha, but only men were allowed on it. So the seven of us guys gallivanted around the steps while the three girls watched from below. The story behind the golden blobs that were at the top of the platform is that there were three statues of Buddha that overtime had gold leaves stuck on them for good luck until they eventually turned to nothing that would resemble Buddha. About thirty minutes went by of seeing much of what the pagoda had to offer before moving on to our next stop.

Now this next part of the trip was one of the more depressing parts as we had done a thorough amount of research from the Lonely Planet guide before coming to Myanmar. We stopped at a souvenir shop that was in a different village on stilts to see a girl sitting in a chair with rings around her neck (this is similar to the ones worn in African tribes). That isn't the issue as there are tribes in Myanmar that follow this same practice, as well. The sad part is that this girl was most likely taken from her tribe to sit in that chair all day to have her photo taken by tourists and lure those same Westerners to buy stuff in the shop. In short, such people are treated as farm animals. Let me backtrack for a second by going back to the bus ride from Bagan to Inle Lake. At numerous points during this nine hour ride we saw many women paving new roads and building walls. Unfortunately, this is more than likely the result of forced labor implemented by the government. It was a very painful reminder of the country we were in, as beautiful as it is.

I will break up this not so nice imagery by telling a funny story about what happened after leaving this souvenir shop. In many of these stilt villages, there are people in tiny boats trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. When we walked out of the building we saw one of these individuals was hanging onto the other part of our group's boat. I got a good laugh that she was going to start selling them stuff and being very obnoxious for a portion of their ride. As their boat jetted off with the lady continually asking people if they wanted to buy stuff, the five people in our boat got on and moved out in the same direction. Only about a minute into our ride did we see another smaller boat on a collision course for us. Our driver was gunning the engine at near full capacity and yet this lady was so determined to sell us something that she was risking her boat getting destroyed from the collision. Luckily, she and her boat survived the impact and none of us were tempted to buy any of her trinkets so it wasn't long before she left us alone and let go of our boat.


One of our finals stops on our boat trip was to the infamous floating gardens we had heard a lot about prior to reaching Inle Lake. It seemed like there were never ending rows of plants being grown like the tomato garden seen above. All of the gardens are patches of soil that are held in place by, you guessed it, stilts. It was remarkable that such massive gardens were being grown on the water's surface with the Shan Hills in the background making for an outstanding scene. The driver had our boat glide through the narrow passageways of the garden seeing the locals maintain their crops before we headed to the Jumping Cat Monastery located not too far from the gardens. There were plenty of cats to be seen at the monastery, although, the monks were sleeping in and around the building upon our arrival resulting in us not seeing any cats take flight. We ended up having a relatively short visit to the monastery before rushing out to catch sunset on the open waters of the lake. Our boat just caught the sun setting over the mountains in the west as we came to a stop in the middle of North Inle. No sound of the engine, no words spoken, no other tourists in sight, just the sound of water crashing against the side of the boat. The sun settled below the many peaks of the Shan Hills and our driver then put us on course to make it back to town before dark. It was during this period of time that even more magnificent colors took the skies as clouds took on tones of pink and purple. This made for a very relaxing thirty minute ride back to the docks as the five of us on our boat took in the view from all directions one last time. Clearly, this was one of the better days we had in Myanmar for all the natural beauty we saw and being able to see and interact with the locals of the many villages on stilts.

Upon our return, we cleaned ourselves up at the hostel before having another standard Burmese dinner comprising of sweet/hot & sour chicken, chicken curry, or fried rice/noodles. The town of Nyaung Shwe got very quiet at night, which meant it would be an early night (at least by our standards) as well. Considering all the traveling our group of ten had endured up to this point, it wasn't such a bad thing to get some more rest.

Night came and went; when we all woke up the next morning, one of our friends took off back for Singapore for her final. Our now group of nine carried on, nonetheless, as we had one more full day to hang out at Inle Lake. The plan for that Thursday was to get some bicycles and go around the lake to get some superb views from various mountaintops.

We biked out of town around eleven o' clock and headed off towards the many hills that go along Inle Lake. Along the way, we got up close with many locals that were hanging around on the side of the road. In one instance, we stopped where some children were standing on the other side of the road. I for one moment reached into my pocket to make sure my stuff was there; almost instantly, the children reacted and starting coming up to me asking for money. This is 100% a by-product of older tourists impetuously giving away money to kids who won't know what to do with it (Lonely Planet suggests to only give money to their parents). We also wanted to go in hot springs that were on the path. When we arrived, they looked like nothing more than just small hot tubs carved up out of tile and cement. Anyone of us in our group would probably agree that this was the biggest let down of the trip.

No matter because we eventually made it to the bottom of a huge two hundred-something step staircase that would lead us up a knoll overlooking the lake. We trekked our way up the steep and crumbling stairs knowing that if anyone were to fall or slip, it would be quite some time before help would get here. I read in our guidebook that in the event that tourists are seriously injured or sick that you get airlifted to Singapore for medical care. Those of us who chose to go all the way to the top did make it there without incidence, luckily. We spent some time at the top looking out in all directions seeing many scattered villages, pagodas, and an infinite amount of vegetation. Twenty minutes later, the nine of us came down from the hill to continue biking further down the path into more villages full of Burmese people that would stare at us the second we entered town. It was not because they didn't like us that we would get so much attention, but more out of curiosity, at least that's what I reckoned. There was a small restaurant that we ate at in which there were only two items on the menu: fried noodles or fried rice. It was a very good meal, as most were pretty decent in Myanmar, just with very limited options. For the entire meal there was this little dog that was sitting at my side the same way mine do at home; eventually it decided to sit under my chair reminding me even more of my dogs at home that I haven't seen in almost four months. It was a heartfelt moment having now been away from the States for quite some time.

Subsequent to everyone finishing up lunch, we took a short boat ride across the width of the lake with our bikes. It was a pleasant experience to once more get out on Inle Lake and take in much of the natural beauty it has to offer. We then reached the other side pushed forward on our bike tour around Inle Lake.

Almost immediately, we ventured to another monastery in the area to walk around and see the another one of the many shrines to Buddha we encountered on this trip. Soon thereafter, we rode further down the path back towards Nyaung Shwe. The riding experience ended up being a mix of enjoying the nice scenery to playing the game "Scapegoat" where the object is to cut people off so as to make them possible fall. Of course, one unlucky person did have the honors of tasting the ground courtesy of playing this game. Following much biking down the long narrow path, we came across a vineyard that was situated up in the mountains; with time to spare before sunset we decided to check it out.

It turned out they had wine tasting at a very good price so the group decided to try out a couple different kinds of the wines up till sunset. We got to try a number of drinks with an impressive view of the lake, mountains, marshlands, and town in our line of sight. Not a bad way to end another long day of sightseeing and such. Later that night, all of us were tired of eating chicken and rice so we went to an Italian restaurant that was a little pricier compared to everywhere else we had eaten in Burma. The funniest part about this restaurant was the Burmese guy at the door tried to use an Italian accent when talking to us. Then he took all nine of us back into the kitchen to show us where the food was made. To top it all off, he used very descriptive yet hilarious adjectives to describe the food as if it was all straight from Rome ("mozzarella straight from Italy" and "fresh cut tomatoes" to name a few examples).

The next day, it was time to gather our things and catch a bus back to Yangon so as to make our flight back to Kuala Lumpur the day after that. We endured a very long bus ride, fourteen hours to be exact, that went through winding roads in the mountains, dirt paths, and a highway that went through the capital. This was a much more tolerable bus ride than the previous ones as it did not have any Burmese soap operas blasting in our ears nor was it that bumpy.

Our arrival in Yangon came at approximately 6:00 A.M. on Saturday. Having very little energy left to spare, we headed back to the hostel from earlier in the week and slept for a couple hours. When it was time to wake up at noon, we said our goodbyes to the few people not coming back to Singapore since they didn't have finals. The rest of the day included walking around town and checking out the many markets that the former capital has to show for. Finally, it was time to head to the airport for our night flight home.

Now based on my research before our trip, I had read that electricity can be an issue in Burma, especially when traveling outside of Yangon. For the week in Myanmar, there was no such issue as far as the electricity not working, until now. We were sitting in the airport just about to go through security when the airport lost power. Keep in mind this is the biggest airport in the country and yet it for whatever reason had the lights, machinery, and equipment shutdown. Fortunately, it was short-lived and we were able to go through security without issue, but it was still incredible to see a major airport lose power like that; when in Myanmar...

Not to end the story abruptly, but we made it to Kuala Lumpur and took a bus to the border between Malaysia and Singapore with few issues, if any. The last five of us coming back to Singapore made it to PGP at 7:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. What a trip.

I will conclude this thesis of a blogpost by saying that it was a phenomenal trip that encompassed everything one could hope for: the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temples of Bagan, and Inle Lake. A truly magnificent trip that was even better than one could imagine because of our group of ten having a great group of people, which made for a great dynamic during every part of the trip. Besides the things we saw, the people of Burma were very kind and hospitable to us and I appreciate that very much. Let me add one more story about that here: before we caught a taxi to the airport to leave the country, we had a lot of extra kyat to get rid of. So we gave it to this random store owner outside of the hostel; he looked at us in amazement, but almost as if we were crazy. As we jumped in the back of the taxi, I looked back to see that the store owner was approaching us with water bottles in hand and giving them to us. Our good deed had now been negated by another one. It was little things like that during my stay in Myanmar that made me feel comfortable and safe, despite being in a place that is under sanctions by the United States and other Western powers. In closing, Burma was awesome and I would love to go back in the future to see the rest of the country that I was unable to check out in one week.

*I am letting it be known that I did eat/drink something funny while in Myanmar that got me very sick in the stomach upon my return to Singapore. It left me in very bad shape during my finals as I would have to run out in the middle of them to go to the bathroom. I am writing this with six hours to go before leaving for Beijing and I have made a near full recovery so look forward to a healthy J Coco writing about my adventures in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the future.

Adios Singapore, until next time. J Coco out.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 2 of 3)

Tired from the half day of traveling, we immediately got rides to a hostel in town courtesy of cycling rickshaws that can be summed up as a seat attached to the side of a bicycle. For about a kilometer, my driver/cyclist was booking it, all for just 1000 kyat, yet once I got to my destination and paid the man, his face lit up displaying his overwhelming level of happiness for making the equivalent of $1.10. This was really a shock to get a feel for how the people of this country live on day by day basis making such little amounts of cash to show for their work. Anyway, we crashed at the hostel for the rest of the morning until waking up at 9:00 A.M. to enjoy breakfast on the roof. Soon thereafter, we were on bikes heading toward Old Bagan to see the many famous temples that carry on for what seemed like forever.

We reached the outskirts of this sacred land; I soon realized that wearing shoes was a mistake as every temple we entered required taking them off. Biking around from one structure to the next was very enjoyable with the great weather we had all week long. It actually became a problem with how many temples there were as we would ride around for two minutes before deciding we had to stop and see another ancient ruin up close. It was a good problem to have. At one point, a local took us up to the top of a temple to offer up a view of another kind; we got to see that these pagodas go on for as far as one can see.

Once we took advantage of the photo opportunity atop this temple, we came down and resumed our bike tour of Bagan. For the next couple of hours, we carried on seeing more temples, each with its own unique design varying in size, shape, and color. It was a one-of-a-kind experience to just go from one shrine to the next all made in the name of Buddha. Most of these temples were made between the 10th and 13th centuries, with minimal reconstruction, effectively standing against the test of time.

At one point, we made it to the biggest temple that one could find within the sixteen square miles of Old Bagan and were told of a less travelled temple nearby that would be a prime place to see sunset later on. We made the short bike ride to this less touristy place to find a completely empty temple with no one soliciting us to buy anything and no other people in sight. Even better was that we were able to navigate to the top of the edifice and get another great panoramic view of temples in every direction. We spent some time exploring the ruins and fully examining the landscape surrounding us. One temple that caught our eye was one with a golden top off in that distance that we thought would be nice to see up close. With some time before sunset, we biked towards the golden structure, which took about fifteen to twenty minutes.

When we arrived outside the walls of the ancient ruins, it was around dinner time so we decided to squeeze in a quick dinner before heading back to our secret temple. There were two little restaurants that were literally fighting over the ten of us to eat at their facility. It seemed like things could have escalated if we all went to one place so our group of ten played the role of mediator and split five and five at each eatery. It was funny yelling across the bike path about what our restaurant had compared to theirs; to no one's surprise they were pretty much identical. Before the food was ready, we explored the temple with the sun coming close to the horizon making for nice scenery. After having a delectable dinner made by the family-run restaurant, we made haste getting back to our lesser known temple to catch the sun setting. When we arrived back at the site, we saw many old French/Belgians tourists had occupied the premises. No matter, as they failed to reach the greater heights of the temple that us twenty-somethings were able to get to. The colors that came to fruition in the sky were a real treat with the many temples taking on a new look under the red and orange sky. Sunset came and went, meaning that we had to hustle back to the hostel before it got dark out.

We made it back to the hostel to clean up after a long yet exciting day of biking and touring the temples of Bagan (formerly known as Pagan). Later that night we enjoyed drinks and banana pancakes (two people in our group had an obsession for them the entire trip) for a few hours before heading back to base camp for the night.

The next morning, I got up early and wanted to see a gold temple that was close to where we living before leaving Bagan. I grabbed a cycling rickshaw and headed to the Shwezigon Pagoda. When I arrived, there was some sort of performance going on that included Burmese dancing and singing that attracted a huge crowd. I watched for a few minutes before going to the main attraction. Unfortunately, the site was more touristy than anywhere else I had been in the country meaning there were many beggars in the area. Having read the Lonely Planet guide thoroughly I knew not to give money to kids because they will waste the money, but it was advised it is better to give to their parents. I had not donated any money up to this point in the trip so I gave 1000 kyat to this woman who was begging, which is a lot for a local as evidenced from the rickshaw driver the day before. Instead of getting a "thank you," she said to me "That's not enough for food," I looked at her in disbelief and just walked away. Talk about ungrateful. I made my rounds moving through the Pagoda before catching a ride back to town.

Upon my return to the hostel, the ten of us bought a private bus for us to take to the Mount Popa and Inle Lake. Mount Popa is a volcano that hasn't erupted for centuries and sits an hour outside of Bagan. Its main feature is a volcanic plug on the side of the mountain that stands well above ground level. Similar to climbing the stairs at the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, there were many monkeys running around the staircase to the top of the volcanic plug. The little guys were fun to watch as they scavenged for food in and around town.The Buddhist monastery at the top had nice views of the Burmese landscape, but otherwise nothing too special about the area. It was interesting to see the hill from afar because of how it stuck out like a sore thumb from the huge mountain.

Then came time for another dreaded bus ride from the mountain to Inle Lake. This nine hour bus ride was a harrowing experience as the minibus has zero suspension causing the passengers (aka the ten of us) to be tossed around like a salad in this thing. By the time we reached the town of Nyaung Shwe just near the lake, my ears were ringing like we had just been to a rock concert. It was nice that since it was our bus, we were able to stop whenever we wanted to, so we did at one point stop at this farm in the middle of no where. Some local children were staring at us as we walked around where some chiles were drying up to get a good view of sunset. The kids were looking at us as if they had never seen Westerners before. Once in Nyaung Shwe, we crashed at a very nice hostel to rest up for another long day that was to come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 1 of 3)

Myanmar. What comes to mind when you here that name? For some, very little to nothing (I was in that department only eight weeks ago). For others you can make the connection that Myanmar is Burma, but nothing more. Maybe you are interested in visiting the country yourself and have done a painstaking amount of research about Burma. Those people could be wondering is it safe? What about the military junta? After experiencing much of what this country has to offer firsthand, I can tell you it is very unique compared to other countries I have visited.

While I'd like to jump into my adventures in Burma, our story begins in Singapore, early Saturday morning. The date was November 13th; our flight to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly known as Rangoon) was later that day out of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia as opposed to Changi Airport in Singapore. For those that don't know this already from my blog about this city back in August, Kuala Lumpur is approximately a four hour bus ride from Singapore.

A couple of us left PGP at 4:45 A.M. (I didn't go to sleep that night) to catch an early morning bus from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur then getting on the 4:30 P.M. flight from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Things were going pretty smoothly as far as getting to the bus terminal in good time and leaving Johor Bahru for KL. By this point, our group had grown to ten people, all exchange students from a few different countries: three Americans, three Belgians, two Netherlanders, one Finn, and one Canadian. For the ten of us, it seemed we were going to have a no issue getting to the airport on time, until the bus broke down. I woke from my sleep to hear that we had to get off the bus and get on a different one; I still wasn't concerned about missing our flight. Somehow, though, the second bus we got on must have gone to KL in a very indirect manner because the usual four to five hour ride ended became a six to seven hour ride. Now missing our flight was actually a possibility. We all ran for taxis once reaching KL for the airport, which was an hour from the city, and ended up making our flight to Yangon, Myanmar by the smallest of margins. A nice way to start off the week.

The day we arrived in Yangon was actually a historic/notable day in the history of Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the movement for a Democratic Burmese government and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was released from her fifteen year or so house arrest. Did I mention she lives in Yangon? No we didn't see her, even from a distance, nor any protests of any kind during the entire week in Burma. In fact, since I brought it up initially, the city of Yangon as well as the rest of Myanmar felt very safe. If that isn't good enough for you, then Lonely Planet says Yangon is one of the safest cities in southeast Asia.

After landing in Yangon International Airport that Saturday night, we headed for a hostel near the center of the city. We dropped our stuff off and headed for dinner and drinks. The best part of the night was getting taxis on the way back and having all three cab drivers race each other to see who could get back to the hostel first. The cab I was in had the tiniest of drivers who could barely see over the wheel. At each light we stopped at, he would rev the engine of the vehicle, which must have been made in the 70s, but then would never go as fast as the other two taxis once the light turned green. At night, driving around Yangon offers some great views of the many different pagodas at a distance. This includes the most famous pagoda in the country that we were to see that Sunday, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

This giant structure is not nearly as well known as it should be, standing at over 300 feet covered in golden plates with an assortment of diamonds and other precious rocks at its peak. Our group decided to wake up early in the morning, 4 A.M. to be exact, the next day to catch the Pagoda at sunrise. We arrived at this amazing structure a little after 5:00 A.M. to see many monks, buddhists, and the like all praying to structure. For how early in the morning it was, I was shocked to see so many people up already. It appeared during the week in Myanmar that the people of this country live with the daylight meaning waking up and going to bed much earlier than in Western culture. While there were many people there few, if any tourists besides us, were walking around and gazing at the shear size and volume of the Pagoda. The story behind the Shwedagon Pagoda was built sometime around the 6th to 10th century and is apparently an enshrinement of eight of the Buddha's hairs. Nonetheless, to have all ten of us sit on the ground, barefoot like the Buddhists, and look up this 300-something foot creation was euphoric. We walked around the Pagoda and the other buildings that were part of the structure while enjoying the sunrise for a couple hours before heading back to the hostel for breakfast.

The rest of the day in Yangon was relatively mundane (exchanging money*, casually strolling through markets, etc.) before our afternoon bus ride to the land of many temples, Bagan. This trip up to central Burma was going to be no cakewalk, though. By this form of transportation, it is supposed to take twelve hours to get to Bagan, the former capital of Myanmar. Similar to the bus ride in Kuala Lumpur, everything was going to plan on the ride for the first couple minutes. But it didn't take long before Burmese soap operas were being blasted to full volume on the television. This made it nearly impossible to go to sleep in the tiny and uncomfortable seats we had at our disposal. I even tried blasting my iPod to zone out the awfulness that was the television; even then you could still catch a word or two every few minutes when people were in a quarrel.

The only entertainment I deemed as quality the entire ride was unexpected and I still have no idea to this day why it happened. Early on in the bus ride, some guy gets on the bus, walks to around the sixth row and starts yelling at this guy in Burmese. The guy standing then slaps this dude across the face before continuing on with what he had to say. The victim here didn't even retaliate, despite the fact that this guy gave him a pretty good open hand shot to the cheek. The man standing then left the bus while the passenger looked down in disgrace. A couple of hours later, an old Burmese woman comes on the bus and starts doing the same thing: screaming at this dude before giving the same guy another authoritative slap to the face. Like the first time, no retaliation. This person must have really done something wrong, that's one thing I am sure of. Finally, the real icing on the cake to an awful bus ride was how many people the driver kept picking up. At one point, people were sitting on fold out seats in the aisle because it got that crowded. You can imagine how much of a relief it was when we arrived in Bagan at around 4:00 A.M.

*Regarding exchanging money, Myanmar has a ton of funny and odd rules about this subject. First, when exchanging dollars (USD) into the local currency (kyat, K), the bills have to be new, crisp, and in mint condition meaning no ink marks or creases. Second, the rate the government gives for the conversion is very different from the one you get in the black market (i.e. don't exchange your money at the airport). The rate the black market gives is about 890K to $1 while the government I believe uses a rate of 490K or something of that variety. Finally, it wasn't until last year that the government started to produce 5000K bills, but I only saw three of them the entire time I was there. Why does that matter? Well the next biggest bill, 1000K, is only worth approximately $1. So that means you get to walk around with a wad of cash feeling like you are really rich when in fact its the same amount of money you had before but split up into monopoly money, essentially. The picture seen here is all our money pooled together in kyat after we converted only half the USD we had brought for the trip. Each pillar with a rubber band around it was how much each individual to walk around with (no it did not fit in our wallets as you can imagine).

Stay tuned for parts two and three over the next couple of days!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Classes are over! Sorry I had to get that out of my system. Nonetheless, I'm sitting in the television lounge as we speak, it is three hours before I leave for Myanmar. Located right next to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and India, it is one of the most interesting and yet misunderstood countries in the world. In fact, I am going to have to honest with you that I read an article the other day comparing the state of Myanmar with that of North Korea. No, Myanmar is not a dangerous place visit; according to Lonely Planet Traveler's Guide, Myanmar is one of the safest places to be in southeast Asia. This can be accounted for because a vast percentage of the population is Buddhist, therefore stealing and such goes against the religion of such individuals as they believe in being good in this life in order to look forward to the next one. In addition, the government hands down harsher than normal penalties to those who cross paths with tourists. I expect it to be the most unique experience among all the trips I will make in Asia based on the vast cultural differences the Western world shares with this country. Our itinerary is going to involve a lot of traveling by bus (like 50 hours worth over the next week!) but it will be well worth it.

We plan on hitting up a variety of places and attractions including Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda, Bagan, Kalaw, and the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda also known as the Golden Rock. Of course, there will be a fair amount of studying that I will be partaking in during my downtime on this trip as there will be quite a bit with the bus rides and such as I have four finals to take once I return back to Singapore. For now, I have more packing to tend to. Expect the unexpected in my next blog post as I plan, as usual, to give you a full and in-depth recap of this week long trip to the Union of Myanmar. Stay tuned.

Cheers,
J Coco

Friday, November 5, 2010

Closer Than You'd Think

It was a just a normal Wednesday in Singapore: I picked up my tourist visa for China early in the morning, hung out in the t.v. lounge for a bit, and did a fair amount of studying to top it all off. At about 3:00 P.M. in the afternoon, a friend of mine told us he had a room at the Marina Bay Sands hotel downtown for him and his girlfriend adding that we should join them later on. While it was Wednesday, the biggest night of the week to go out in Singapore, this was an incredible opportunity that only a fool would shy away from. It was decided that the other three of us would meet up with our pal and his lady friend at the hotel in time to catch sunset from the pool.

Around 5:00 P.M., we met up as a group at the hotel and made it upstairs as a group of five to settle down in the room for a few minutes. The room that our friend had been given was on the forty sixth floor of the fifty seven storey building, offering to us a fantastic view of Marina Bay. Once we made it up top to the pool area, we were able to take in one of the best views an individual can get in Singapore. A 150 meter long infinity pool stretched across one side of the roof of the building with much of the Singapore skyline in our line of sight. It was a very enjoyable couple of hours spent in the pool area, watching the sun set, taking photos, and seeing the city's skyscrapers lit at night. A quick tangent here: I was joking around with everybody that I was an "expert photographer" because of how many pictures I was taking of the skyline and everyone else. A stranger who overheard me came over and asked me to take a photo of him and his wife since I was such an "expert." I gladly played the role of professional photographer and snapped a shot or two of them. Afterwards, he asked me if I was American (everyone in Asia seems to know I am American just from my accent). I replied that I am and that I was in Singapore as a student at NUS studying Civil Engineering. Turns out this guy was a Civil Engineering professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, which I have been to before. He then enlightened my friends and I for a few minutes explaining some of the architectural features of the building. Following his mini-lecture of sorts, I said he had stimulated my interest in the field of engineering more in that moment than any teacher or advisor I have had in my time at college. He had a good laugh after hearing that.

Later that night, we went for a walk around Marina Bay for dinner at a nearby hawker center. I cannot recall if I have mentioned to my readers back in the States what a hawker center is so I will describe it here whether it is the first time or not. A hawker center is pretty much a food court that is outside containing many different stalls of inexpensive food. Recently, one of my Singaporean buddies has told me about ten specific foods that I have to have in this country before I leave. With less than a month to go I have only had two up this point, one of which I had at this hawker center. Known to be a true Singaporean dish, I had chicken rice; the dish is pretty much what it sounds like with the addition of various Asian sauces and spices thrown to the mix. After our meal downtown, we had some more friends join us in the room at the Marina Bay Sands to play drinking/card games (it only seemed appropriate on Wednesday night in one of the nicest hotels in Singapore). I ended up coming home earlier than I normally do on a Wednesday after leaving the hotel at a time when it was too late to go clubbing. Even so, it was still one of the best nights in Singapore.

A couple days later, that same friend who had the hotel room, his girlfriend, and I headed to the northern portion of Singapore to see the Singapore Zoo. It has been said to be one of the best in the world, making it a staple for any trip to this country. By saying this, I am admitting that it took about three months of being in Singapore to finally become a tourist here. August to November was pretty much studying, traveling to other countries in southeast Asia, and clubbing. Not a bad three months if you ask me. I had not been to a zoo in years, the last time probably being either the Bronx or Beardsley Zoo sometime ago, but I could tell this place was huge. They had all the animals one could ever ask to see (minus gorillas, I would have liked to have seen them) in addition to numerous gardens and views of calm and tranquil waters. For the animals that were there, we pretty much saw everything the zoo had to offer including penguins, pelicans, baboons, zebras, giraffes, rhinoceroses, lions, jaguars, pythons, turtles, elephants, kangaroos, and many more. Three highlights in particular I will point out to you: first the sea lion show we saw at the end of the day that included Stan the Sea Lion balancing a ball on his nose, catching frisbees, and doing backflips like the one here. Another highlight was seeing so many orang utans swing about the trees in an open environment above everyone watching from the ground. We also got to see one of the people who worked at the zoo playing around with the orang utans. He pretty much would hit them or tickle them at the belly, then the orang utan would come back at him by giving the guy multiple five fingers or open fist slaps to the back. It made for good entertainment to see this go back and forth between both the guy and the giant ape for a couple minutes. The final significant moment of the trip, at least for me, was when I was taking a picture of a butterfly over railing.

All of sudden in my periphery, I saw something approaching me. Next thing I know, whatever this animal is, I found him about a foot away from me just going about his business. It scared the crap out of me not that I thought he would harm me at all but just for the fact that he startled me and his demon eyes aren't the most welcoming.

Overall, it was a great day that validated to me, for the second time in one week, that you don't have to leave Singapore in order to have a good time (without clubbing) in southeast Asia. I will also note here that my Bali trip did in fact get cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. I do still have my week long trip to Myanmar starting this Saturday to look forward to after my final week of classes. Crazy how fast the semester has gone by...

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Real Hong Kong (Part 2 of 2)

Considering it was a Monday night, I was rather impressed with the number of locals, expats, and businessmen that were working the various bars of Lan Kwai Fong. The two of us being exhausted from a long day of train and bus rides with quite of bit of walking, as well, didn't put us in a position to have a late night. Instead, we propped up Clarke Quay style on a concrete wall and enjoyed a beer reminiscing about the long day that was. Walking back to the MTR station afterwards, we ran into a guy who was on the same flight as us from Singapore, who also corrected my pronunciation of "thank you" in Cantonese in the airport (in case any of you care it is "M̀h'gōi", pronounced as "Mm guy"). It was the only word my friend and I knew going to Hong Kong, but is very powerful because it also means "excuse me." This is essential when traversing the crowded trains of Hong Kong, especially during rush hour when everyone gets to know the people next to them a little bit better than they would like to. Back to the main point of me even mentioning this individual. He was a fellow New Yorker (I do consider myself a New Yorker having being born in Manhattan and living there for a few years plus it is easier to explain to people here than to start explaining what Connecticut is), who we shared a friendly conversation with about Hong Kong, future plans, looking for some good New York style pizza, etc. It is always nice to see a familiar face, even for the short term, in such foreign places. We then caught the train back to Kowloon to crash at the same hostel as the previous night.

The third and final day in Hong Kong had us up bright and early once again. That Tuesday we spent the majority of our time between two islands. The first place we went to was Lamma Island, an easy twenty minute ferry ride from the central business district of the city. Having gotten there so early in the morning, there were few tourists, if any, out and about. This made for hassle free trekking through the island. Lamma Island was a very chill and laid back, which made for a real change of pace after being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for two days. Once the ferry dropped us off at the docks, we made off for a beach that was twenty minutes by foot. From our walk, it seemed like much natural beauty to be found through the random villages that popped up here and there. When we did make it to this beach, it was pretty much deserted (as expected at 9 A.M.). This was great for relaxing and taking pictures of the landscape. So we perched up on these rocks off to the side of everything and took in the outstanding view of the South China Sea. An hour or so passed by before making ways to the pier to catch a 10:30 A.M. ferry to the mainland as we had even bigger plans in store for the day.

The second half of Tuesday was devoted to Lantau Island, adjacent to Chek Lap Kok Island where the airport can be found. One of the big attractions of Lantau Island is the cable car ride, which provides tourists with breathtaking views of the South China Sea, the mountain range, and the airport. More importantly, it was critical for us to see the former biggest Buddha statue in the world that was at the end of this journey to the village Ngong Ping.


It was a one of a kind experience to climb the 268 stairs that led up to this shrine to get to see what is still a place that people go to for prayer. The statue itself was remarkable up close as we both sat there pondering how it was built and the symbolism behind Buddha, himself. There were amazing views of the bay close by and Lantau Peak, the second highest in Hong Kong to provide further entertainment. What sealed the deal was getting to see real monks strolling around Buddha, going about their daily lives. In fact, we almost got to ride the cable car down with them; this could have made for an interesting conversation if we had been given the chance.

With spare time left on our hands, we began walking to Lantau Peak in search of anything of interest. We found more than we expected at the base of this mountain. First, leading up the side of a nearby knoll were many long pieces of wood with Chinese characters inscribed in them. I immediately thought of it as a "Chinese Stonehenge" of sorts. We read the description about it as having some relation with learning about one's self and a deeper meaning of life as we know it. We walked up and through this area to observe the many structures before looking to get to the other side of the hill. At the top, we had an even better vantage point of both Lantau Peak and the bay we had seen at the Buddha statue. This probably was the highlight of the trip as we were able to enjoy our final few hours in Hong Kong with an incredible view of the bay with Lantau Peak to our left and Buddha off in the distance to our right. We had gone so far off the beaten path to get to this point that few people were in the surrounding area, making for an even better experience. We stayed and looked out over the foliage and sea from these giant boulders on the mountain for quite some time before heading to the airport in time for a 6:10 P.M. flight home.

Mission Accomplished. We had seen as much as one could have seen in roughly three days on Hong Kong and its many islands. From the inner city to being up in the mountains and hanging out at a relatively remote beach; we had seen every type of terrain that Hong Kong had to offer. It was a great experience in every way and I do hope to go back to this economic hub soon to be able to see the things I missed out this time around and get to interact more with locals, too. As with almost everywhere else I have visited up to this point, I highly recommend a visit to Hong Kong for both NUS exchange students in Singapore and to any Westerners at home deciding where to travel to in Asia. Thanks for reading about this three day extravaganza I got to take part in, stay tuned for posts about my trips to Indonesia and Myanmar in the coming weeks!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Real Hong Kong (Part 1 of 2)

While only going to this special administrative region (SAR) of China for three days, I could probably write as much if not more than I did for Thailand on this blog. For those who do not remember or never got the chance to read about that trip, it was a week long adventure that prompted me to write three lengthy posts about the subject. However, I will contain myself in this instance and give to you the information and details I find necessary and interesting to make for a complete story. Now I give you the story of my three day journey throughout Hong Kong.

I mentioned in my last post that I was tentatively scheduled to go to Hong Kong at some point over the next two weeks. Right after making that statement, I realized that it may not be possible due to a number of things including class, lab sessions, workload, and a basketball tournament. But having heard how amazing of a place the city of Hong Kong is, I sent some e-mails out, talked with the parental unit, and did some research about things to do in Hong Kong to come up with three days out of the rest of my semester to pull off a quick visit to this city.

My initial plan was to leave early Sunday morning and see much of the outskirts of Hong Kong. I was then either going to meet up with a friend from back in the States who is studying abroad there or with a buddy at NUS who was touring the city with his mom. Instead, one of my friends at NUS who also attends UConn with me made a last second decision to come along (by last second I mean booking flights to and from Hong Kong eight hours before we left). So the two of us ventured out of Singapore on a 6:40 A.M. flight on Sunday and immediately hit the ground running once we landed. We took a very scenic bus ride from Hong Kong International Airport to one of the urban areas of Hong Kong called Kowloon. From there, we explored the streets of Tsum Sha Tsui, the part of Kowloon closest to the central district of Hong Kong. Then we had to take care of searching for accommodation. Looking for a hostel/guesthouse to stay in was much more difficult than in previous countries I had been to since every place stopped at, the people spoke no English, whatsoever. As a result, we would say something to the person at the counter of the hostel and they would respond in Cantonese as if we were fluent in the language. Progress was made in these conversations through the usage of many hand motions and devices like a calculator or cellphone that could display numbers in order to negotiate a price.

Once we found a relatively cheap place to stay, we decided to head a few stops down the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to Mong Kok, the most populated area by density in the world. At first, we didn't really see that many people, making us question the validity of such a fact that many people live in this one part of town. However, it wasn't long till after walking a few blocks over from the MTR station that we became bombarded by swarms of people in every direction. Locals, tourists, businessmen, you name it. In the middle of all the chaos we did navigate some street markets containing cheap goods ranging from belts to graphic art to Chinese ornaments. It was then time to leave the crowded streets of Mong Kok, so we walked back down Nathan Road (aka The Golden Mile) to Tsum Sha Tsui to get a feel for the rest of Kowloon.

Later that night, we headed for the Avenue of Stars, the Chinese equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to see the monuments of stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. In addition, we got a great view from this tourist attraction of the daily light show that takes place across Hong Kong's skyline. I must say that this city really does boast one of the, if not the, coolest skyline I have ever seen; it consisted of many uniquely designed skyscrapers with extravagant lights covering many of them while many different LED advertisements casted even more light onto Victoria Harbour. Following the light show, the two of us walked down the entire Avenue of Stars and then checked out one of the biggest night street markets in Hong Kong, Temple Street Night Market. After going through the market, we did some more walking through Kowloon, which is enjoyable at night as huge neon store signs illuminate the streets, reminiscent of Las Vegas during the 60's. It was then time to call it a day and get a fair amount of sleep knowing we had much to accomplish on Monday.

Monday started off with us waking up 8:00 A.M. and heading north of where we were staying in Kowloon to see the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. Before I go forward with this story, I will mention here that this city was very easy to navigate as a tourist. We came to Hong Kong only knowing what to do and roughly where things were. But this temple was one example where once you get off the MTR, you are literally right next to or very close by the tourist attraction. Now this temple was pretty secluded from the city, making it not as full of tourists like in many other places I have been in southeast Asia. It made for an intriguing experience as the two of us stood there taking pictures and looking at the beauty of the many structures when at the same time many Chinese people were praying to these shrines.


Soon thereafter, we took the MTR back through Kowloon and across Victoria Harbour to the main part of the city, Hong Kong Island. We briefly walked around the central business district before catching a bus to Stanley Village, located at the southern portion of the island. Similar to the bus ride from the airport to the city, this ride offered many postcard-esque views of bright blue waters accompanied by small beaches and an abundance of mountains. Forty five minutes later, we reached this tiny and remote village to see another street market as well as more outstanding views of the ocean and the beachfront property nearby. After going through the market and grabbing lunch, we headed to Repulse Bay, which was ten minutes back in the direction we came from. During this bus ride, the driver cutoff a motorist who then followed the bus to the stop we got off at and started a quarrel with the driver. I stood there and watched as the driver pulled over, examined from the bus that he did no damage to the moped, then drove off as the motorist kicked the side of the bus. We quickly ran off after this as the man kicking the bus noticed we had been watching him the whole time from the sidewalk. We then walked down to the huge beach with uniquely designed hotels as a backdrop that make up Repulse Bay. This really made it clear to me that Hong Kong is much more than an urban environment as we sat down and took in the natural beauty of the area. I always knew Hong Kong was a giant financial hub and that has a number of things for the city dweller to prey upon. Never did I expect to be relaxing on a beach staring out over clear waters to see mountainous islands off in the distance. An hour passed by on the beach before catching the bus back to the central part of Hong Kong.

It was only then that for the first time all trip we found ourselves lost in the city. I was very impressed that we had gone so long without little to any issue not using any taxis, relying solely on public transportation and walking (we didn't take one taxi the entire three days in Hong Kong as supposedly taxi drivers there no very little English if any). Anyway, we ended up in some corridor of the city that wasted a good thirty minutes of our time before getting back on the beaten path. This was critical as we were trying to meet up with our Belgian friend at the top of Victoria Peak for its great view overlooking the city skyline. We eventually made it to the top of this mountain, but about forty five minutes later than we planned between getting lost and a temporary malfunction with the tram that takes you to the top. At approximately 7:00 P.M., we had reached Victoria Peak to get an unbelievable view of the skyline. In this shot, one can see the fourth tallest building in the world on Kowloon across the harbor as well as the eleventh tallest in the middle of the picture in the heart of Hong Kong Island. The two of us, who had now failed to meet up with our friend, then proceeded to have a light dinner before coming back to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the same light show as last night but from this different vantage point.

When the show finished up, we headed down a couple floors of the building that stood atop Victoria's Peak and went through the Madame Tussaud's wax museum since my friend had never been to one before. It may not have been as impressive as the one I had been to in New York City, but it still made for a good time taking pictures with many celebrity look-alikes we both knew and had never heard of before. Around 9:30 P.M., we took the tram back down the mountain and began to make ways towards the supposed Clarke Quay of Hong Kong, Lan Kwai Fong.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

False Alarm

It has been quite some time since I last posted about being in Singapore, but the streak ends here.

The last couple of weeks in the country, before and after the trip to Kota Kinabalu, have been out of the oridinary to say the least. The weather hasn't changed the slightest bit with the usual 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by 80-90% humidity. Basically, what I'm getting at is my room is still a sauna.

In fact, now I seem to find myself in the TV lounge getting work done prior to passing out in a comfy chair for a few hours. The downgrade in the quality of the bed is more than made up for with air conditioning.

An interesting development that has been taking place is the constant ringing of the fire alarm in my block. About three weeks ago, the fire alarm went off four times in between the hours of 6-8 A.M. Guess who was the one guy who evacuated the building every time? Yup, the American. It was very confusing, especially since I was still rather sleepy, to see I was standing outside in the dark by myself with the fire alarm going off. Nobody else evacuated the building but yours truly. What gives? The first time this happened it was fine since I figured the alarm had to go off once or twice this semester. The only problem is that this second time came approximately thirty minutes later. Fine that still didn't phase me too much. Forty five minutes later it went off again followed by a fourth instance ten minutes after that. It had gotten to the point where I was just sitting in my room waiting for the thing to start up again like the way you wait to hear that you can board a plane at the airport. The constant repetition of a quick nap followed by being woken up to the irritating ringing of the bell ended up throwing my whole day off. For the first time since summer I ended up sleeping past lunch time and into the afternoon missing my one lecture of the day. I will get to what probably set off the alarm so many times in one morning later on.

So one bad day, it happens to everyone at one point or another. A week goes by and I come back from Kota Kinabalu having, for the most part, forgotten about the fire alarm incident the week before. A couple of days later the fire alarm goes off again at 7:30 A.M. As always, I was the only person to evacuate the building while one of the most annoying noises known to man continued to invade my place of residence. This time, though, instead of waiting for the alarm to stop, I decided to just go to the TV lounge in a different building where I could put two chairs together and sleep there. So I ended up passing out in this air-conditioned haven for about three hours that morning. It was comforting to be able to sleep for a good period of time without having to worry about being disturbed.

If you thought that was the end to that story, not so fast, it turns out that it gets even better. The next morning the fire alarm goes off again at 5:30 A.M.! At this point I've really had enough. Later that day I go to the Management Office of the housing complex and ask them what the deal is. It seems that someone that morning was making something in the oven and forgot about it causing the alarm to go off...at 5:30 A.M. Why in the world was this individual up so early baking/cooking/etc.? This, my friends, is well beyond me. I just don't get it, mainly because that is most likely the culprit for the other five times it went off, as well. I did suggest to the office that they just get rid of the alarm altogether since I'm the only person evacuating the building so you aren't really saving any lives (I was obviously kidding when I said it).

Other than this issue with the fire alarm, I've been really busy with work as the semester is already coming to a close. From now till the end of the semester, there are only about three weeks of classes left plus a reading week before finals.

This leads me into previewing the next few weeks before coming home (that's right it is getting down to the wire). I am tentatively scheduled to go to Hong Kong at the end of October (if any NUS students are interested in joining me, please do get in touch). Afterwards, I will be complete the triple-header of trips in southeast Asia between late October and early November with a couple days in Bali followed by a week in Myanmar. From there, it is a week and a half of finals before Beijing! I plan on spending a week in Beijing for the first week of December with a Swiss buddy on exchange and a Chinese friend who happens to live in Beijing when he is not studying Singapore. This could change any second, but then I would head down to Vietnam afterwards to see Halong Bay and Hanoi followed by Ho Chi Minh City then Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is then that I will endure the long travel back to New York for a few days of relaxing. This will be short-lived as I will then head to Barcelona and Madrid with the family the day before Christmas.

It will surely be one of, if not the craziest and most exciting month of my life. But I can't look ahead with four finals standing in the way between me and freedom...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Welcome to Pandora

Kota Kinabalu: a place no one or at least very few people have heard of back in the States. For all the NUS exchange students please bear with me for one moment. Kota Kinabalu is in Malaysia, more specifically Borneo, which is the Malay part of the third largest island in the world. More importantly, Kota Kinabalu is located an hour and a half from one of the tallest mountains in southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu. The twentieth highest peak in the world, I had heard people raving about hiking up this mountain for a couple of weeks so when I heard people going the first week in October, I had to jump on the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, it was e-learning week at NUS meaning a lot of classes were either cancelled or required writing up a quick post on the internet, meaning there was no reason for me to be in Singapore.

So after a few clicks, the entering in of some credit card information, and chaos meeting up with people the morning of the flight, I found myself sitting next to one of my friends at the gate to our plane in Changi Airport. We got on the plane at around 10:30 A.M. and found ourselves in Kota Kinabalu approximately two hours later.

The two of us took a taxi into town and in no time found a place to stay. Since our main goal was to climb the mountain, we hadn't put in any thought as far as what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Fortunately, the guy who ran the hostel we were at was very helpful and told us to check out a number of things right on the water. The city/town, I'm not really sure how you would classify it, was very small so we walked across town to check out the various markets down by the sea. Soon thereafter, it was time to check out the food stalls located close by. There were many different places offering up their own fish, right off the boat, as well as chicken wings, corn, rice, tiger prawn, lobster, and so on. Between the two of us, we had banana fish, tuna, two servings of rice, and ten chicken wings. Without question one of the finer meals I have had in southeast Asia thus far.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent seeing whatever was left of Kota Kinabalu and waiting for the rest of our group to meet up with us at the hostel.

The next day, we made an attempt to go and see orang-utans at this hotel/resort located an hour outside of town. We arrived at the very nice and most likely overpriced venue only to find out that the orang-utan viewing was fully booked. As consolation for our travels, the five of us ended up chilling out in a hut on the massive beach located adjacent to the hotel. A few hours went by before picking up our things and heading back to Kota Kinabalu for another fantastic seafood dinner. Afterwards, it was time to head to the bus stop to go to Mount Kinabalu.

Now here is one of lasting memories I will forever have of Malaysia. We arrive by taxi at the bus station swarmed by ten or more Malays. They immediately flung open the doors to the vehicle and popped the trunk. It was then that I saw them take my bag and a friend's bag. Instinctively, I went after the man who had taken our stuff and followed him to wherever he was going. I asked repeatedly for him to give me my stuff back but he didn't comply. Finally, he dropped our things at his stall to buy a bus ticket to Mount Kinabalu. I let down my guard after having to endure such a chaotic situation being separated from my friends momentarily in a country where none of us had working phones while having so many locals screaming in your face and not understanding a word they are saying. The other four individuals found me without any problems and managed to also grab the pair of shoes I had left in the trunk, which was crucial since I wouldn't have had anything to hike in the next day.

It was a crazy ninety minute bus ride: twisting and turning up and down the many mountains that consumed much of Borneo. Upon arriving at the base of the mountain, the group walked down the road for cheap accommodation. It was very refreshing to be outside as the air was cool and even a little on the chilly side. It must have been about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 10 degrees Celsius for everyone else in the world). Those were some of the best few hours of sleep I've had in southeast Asia; it was splendid to not be cooped up in a very warm single room back in Singapore.

It was now Thursday morning, the beginning of our grueling hike was approaching. We met our tour guide who would watch over us for the next two days and caught up with another friend from NUS. The six of us got a ride over to the starting gate of the hike and in almost no time began the our trek up the mountain at 10:44 A.M. MYT.

At first, the terrain seemed relatively flat with a few staircases to climb here and there. But as time went on, the rain that had started that morning began to pick up while the convenient staircases turned into muddy areas with jagged rocks. Nonetheless, the six of us and our guide moved forward at a solid pace taking the occasional break to catch our breath and indulge in energy-filled snacks. Five hours later, covered in soaking wet clothes, we found ourselves at the Laban Rata Resthouse, which is 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) from the starting gate. Starving and exhausted, we indulged in the buffet at 5 o'clock prior to passing out in the room at 6:00 P.M. I enjoyed once more being able to sleep in a room that wasn't one giant inferno, yet going to bed so early ended up not working out so well. I would have thought climbing one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia would have put me out of commission for a few hours. Instead, I ended up just taking a bunch of hour long naps. Time slowly passed by, but at long last it was 1:30 A.M. Time to wake up and finish the last leg of our journey to the summit known as Low's Peak.

Following an early morning breakfast, the expedition continued in the darkness of night at about 2:30 A.M. For an hour we struggled up steep staircases in the midst of many other hikers, making it very crowded on various parts of the trail. Then came the part of our ascent up the mountain that nobody saw coming. The mountain had become so steep that ropes were assembled so that people could pull themselves up, untethered. It was still very dark out and all we had for visibility were the headlights we were wearing. One person actually lost their footing for a second and almost got seriously hurt if they hadn't been hanging on to the rope. This was very physically demanding to have to pull our own weight for the majority of what remained in our hike. As time went on, our pace sped up in order to make it to the peak for sunrise. For the last kilometer, I was working my body so hard in the thin air, giving every last bit of energy I had as I could see the peak in front of me, but also see the tiniest bit of light coming from the sun off in the distance. For the last hill I had to traverse, I must have looked like a barbarian as I just climbed from rock to rock with no regard to where the beaten path was. Having nothing left to give, I had made it to the top of Mount Kinabalu. One friend was already waiting for me there while the rest of the group caught up with us in little time. The view was outstanding! I took, in all likelihood, some of the best photos of my trip to southeast Asia up to this point. Here's that sunrise I was working towards:


It was a sight for the ages as we hung out on the freezing cold summit for over an hour. I really could have convinced myself we were on the planet Pandora from James Cameron's "Avatar," the way the clouds looked from above complemented by the spacey looking terrain of the mountain. Simply stunning. After enjoying the view from the top, we began our slow descent down the mountain. At one point down the mountain, we reached a checkpoint to make sure everyone in our group was still there. It was at this stopping area that a park ranger got in the face of one member in our group and began yelling in his face. He was shaking with anger and kept asking him "Who are you?" He spit just to the right of my friend as a sign of disrespect and began going off about how much he hates white people. We still to this day aren't sure what he was so mad about, maybe that we weren't holding the rope for a second on the way down when it wasn't exactly necessary, but no one is too sure of that. He went off for a few minutes before we just walked by and ignored him. The rest of the 8.9 kilometer path felt like it was never going to end as the rain began to come down very hard, once again. When we did reach the end, it felt so good to have achieved such a great accomplishment. We had lunch as a group at the base and headed back to Kota Kinabalu to stay the night.

The next day, three of us took an early morning flight back to Singapore.

Overall, it was another exciting, exhilarating, and pleasant trip. There weren't many tourists in Kota Kinabalu, which was interesting since many local children came up to us and would say "Hi" just because we were Westerners. The mountain itself, I highly recommend to anyone who comes out to this part of the world. You may hate yourself during the climb and descent of the mountain as well as the few days after its over (I'm still very sore in my legs), but you will not regret the opportunity to be above the clouds on one of the biggest mountains in southeast Asia. A great experience on all fronts, thanks to all who I shared it with.

Let me also take the time to remind everyone that more photos and videos from my escapades can be seen at the following two links:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/itsjcoco/
http://www.youtube.com/user/airmcnair8643

Thanks for reading!