Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Halfway point

Only two months left... It's so hard to believe that I'm halfway finished with my exchange program in Singapore. It's been the most amazing experience so far and I am so grateful that Elon and my parents provided me with such an awesome opportunity. Having lived abroad before, I wasn't too nervous about the cultural differences or adjustment. I've always thrived in a new environment and being overseas has taken me back to my middle school days living in England where I was constantly learning new things and meeting new people. 

Classes and group meetings dominate my schedule Monday - Friday, so I've gotten to know a handful of local students pretty well. Thanks to them, I'm now an avid lover of Korean pop music, char siew bao and Tiger/Chang/Singhi/Bintang beers. I was even told that I'm a natural at holding chopsticks... so minus the whole blonde hair thing, I'm practically Asian.

My favorite Korean pop song. Obviously I'm in the middle of memorizing the lyrics and music video dance.
Char Siew Bao-- barbeque pork buns. DELICIOUS!
Friday night was an exciting night for the girls of room 10 because we completed a 40k bike marathon! Hall 3 sponsored a 40k bike marathon from 10 pm to 6 am across the entire country. NTU is located on the far west side of the island and we went from NTU to East Coast Park. The journey ended up taking longer than we expected and we arrived back to our room at 8 am. We were absolutely exhausted but it was worth it. We spent Saturday sleeping and met up with Leah's family from Perth who were in town for dinner. We took them to our favorite local Chinese restaurant, Wan Dou Sek. As always, the food was absolutely delicious. Leah and I ventured to the Jurong Bird Park - the world's largest bird park - on Sunday afternoon. It was very cool to see all the different birds but the highlight of the afternoon was the Ben and Jerry's ice cream stand at the gift shop. The combination of the heat, humidity and bird poop stench made my ice cream cone taste like heaven on Earth.

Start of the bike ride
The whole crew
Jurong bird park

Feeding a lorrie

Wan Dou Sek!! Great dimsum
But perhaps the best news of all lays ahead. Friday evening, my parents are coming to town!! I can't WAIT!! It's very difficult to sit in class and listen to a 2 hour lecture on crisis management when my two favorite people ever are coming to see me in my favorite place ever. They arrive on Friday and are staying at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel for two nights. Can't wait to show everyone pictures --- it is an UNBELIEVABLE hotel. We're spending Sunday and Monday at Bintan Island in Indonesia (about 45 min ferry ride away) for a little rest and relaxation so they can get over jetlag ASAP. Monday - Thursday, we'll be in Singapore. I am so excited to show them my campus, new friends and my new city. We lived in Sing in 1995 and I'm curious how my parents think the city has changed. They leave for Hong Kong on Thursday and I meet up with them on Saturday. My perfect week comes to an end on Monday when I bid both my parents and Hong Kong farewell.

Leah and I are looking forward to continue conquering Southeast Asia in our final weeks. We're spending Easter weekend in Malaysia and then we are spending five days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Between and after these travels, I'll be handcuffed to a chair in the library preparing for exams. Exams here are a big deal -- as in 70% of my grade big deal. It's a far cry from the class system at Elon where I have multiple tests, quizzes, papers, exams -- a lot more opportunities to boost my grade.

I'll be sure to update my blog with stories and pictures from my parents' visit to Sing and Hong Kong. That's all for now :)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring break in Bali

Spring break started off pretty rough. I woke up feeling very sick on Thursday and on Friday, the deadly tsunami hit Japan and sounded off tsunami warnings across southeast Asia. While we were safe and sound in Singapore, our weeklong plans to Bali were up in the air. Luckily our flight didn't leave until Sunday night and by that point, I was starting the feel better and we were ensured our trip to Bali was still on.

Bali is an island in the Indonesian archipelago. Bali is the only island in Indonesia - the world's largest Islamic country - that is dominated by Hinduism. Everyday life revolves around religion. Tourists flock to Bali because of the fascinating culture. We avoided the main touristy destinations like Kuta Beach because we were told they were trashy and commercialized. We booked a hostel in Canggu (pronounced Chan-goo) in an area called Echo Beach. While somewhat secluded from touristy sites and temples, it was the perfect place to relax and unwind after busy days of tours and traveling. Canggu is a "hidden gem" of Bali because it lacks tourists and hawkers but is well-known for its black sand beaches and surfing.

Bali is located between Java and Lombok

Echoland, our hotel in Echo Beach

Echoland at night :) It was perfect!

Black sand ECHO BEACH

Unfortunately it rained on Monday, our first day in Bali. We slept in late and had a delicious breakfast at our hostel. The hostel owner, Jenny, recommended we check out a local store called Krisna to do some shopping. It was fantastic! Krisna is the store where locals go to buy traditional Balinese souvenirs in bulk and then sell them on the streets for double the price. We were the only tourists there and got some serious retail therapy in. I bought two shirts, a dress for my cousin, coffee, jewelry and lots of gifts for family for under $20 US dollars! We had a delicious breakfast in Echo Beach and went to bed early because we had booked an all-day tour of Bali on Tuesday.

Our tour guide was named Wayan and he was absolutely fantastic. Feel free to check out his website here. He spoke perfect English and his tour was the highlight of the week for me. He took us all over the middle part of island. We didn't realize how massive Bali actually is! Even on our twelve hour tour, we had only covered the middle part of the island. Between the mass amount of traffic and actual size of the island, we didn't get to see all Bali has to offer. Oh well, just an excuse to go back :)

We first toured local villages in central Bali. Celuk is the silver and goldsmith village. The jewelry making skills are passed from generation to generation. The locals dedicate their entire life to their craft. It was amazing to see the intricate details and designs obtained from simple hand tools. We also visited a woodcarving village and a Batik village.
Batik village

Silver and goldsmith village

Wood carving village
Next we went to Jalan Wanara Wana - the sacred monkey forest in Ubud. Balinese regard monkeys as sacred descendants of the monkey general Hanoman. There were three temples within the monkey forest honoring the monkeys. Leah and I were pretty scarred from our monkey experience in Phi Phi, so we were less than thrilled to be surrounded by hundreds of monkeys in Bali. We took our pictures and booked it out of there.

Closest I would get to a monkey

Sure, they look cute in pictures... but in real life, they are evil.
We then went to Tegalalang to see famous rice terraces. It was AMAZING! The pictures speak for themselves.

Leah and me in Tegalalang
We continued our way to Gunung Batur and Danau Batur. Gunung Batur is an active volcano that is 5600 feet tall. At the foot of the volcano lies the largest lake in Bali, Danau Batur. We were lucky enough to get lunch at a floating restaurant in the middle of the lake. I had VERY fresh tilapia which was absolutely delicious.

Gunung Batur

Danau Batur

Lunch at the floating restaurant

The freshest lunch I've ever eaten
After lunch, we visit Gunung Kawi. This is one of the most famous temples in Bali because it was built in the 16th century. Gunung Kawi is a complex of rock-hewn shrines overlooking the sacred Pakerisan River. The temple was rediscovered in 1930 and is still used today for special Hindu ceremonies. We had to wear wraps around our waists and take our shoes off before we entered. Next to the main two monuments there was a cluster of rooms hewed out from solid rocks. It was very cool to explore!

Classic jumping picture in front of the rice terraces at Gunung Kawi
Even after seeing all this, our day was far from over. We went to sample the famous Balinese "cat poop coffee" at a local Lewak farm. "Cat poop coffee" is a Balinese delicacy. The farm was overlooking beautiful rice terraces and we got to sample many different types of drinks. My favorite was the hot chocolate!

Sampling our free drinks -- coffee, hot chocolate and tea
In true Kara fashion, I wasn't about to leave Bali without seeing the only Balinese celebrity. Wayan promised me he would take me to meet Ketut Liyer - the medicine man from the Julia Robert's movie "Eat Pray Love." I was absolutely ecstatic! Unfortunately I didn't get to get my fortune told by him because the woman on line in front of me took too long and we had plans to see a fire show. I still got some great creeper pictures and saved myself $20. Yes - now that Ketut is famous, he overcharges and tells everyone to same fortune. But I still love him!

My toothless, ancient lover
The fire show was our final destination during the 12-hour-tour. By that point, we were absolutely exhausted. The fire show was cool but Leah and I nearly fell asleep. A men's choir chanted the same monotonous rhythm the entire show and I felt like I was being hypnotized. The coolest part was when this crazy man dressed up started dancing IN a pit of fire. We were speechless. On our way home, we stopped at a local grocery store and bought bread and peanut butter. We realized we would save money if we just ate peanut butter sandwiches every day for lunch. I probably had about 10 sandwiches all week but at least I saved money!

The next day we were exhausted. We took a cab to Seminyak, a beach town about 30 minutes away. We spent the day lounging at a restaurant that had a pool called Cocoon. We rented lounge chairs at Double Six beach in Seminyak and spent the afternoon reading, napping, eating peanut butter sandwiches and ignoring hawkers. It was lovely!

Lounging at Cocoon in Seminyak

Double Six beach

 That night we grabbed dinner in Echo Beach. We stumbled upon a salsa dance party at a local hotel and decided to stop by. We ended up staying for about an hour and had so much fun! The next day, Leah went horse back riding early in the morning along the beach. I decided to skip out since I am no horse-lover and spent the morning wandering around Echo Beach. I ate a delicious breakfast, read and chatted with other tourists who were spending the day surfing. It is now my goal in life to learn to surf.

The PERFECT start to a day

I <3 surfer boys

Learning to salsa
In the evening, the hostel manager Hendy drove us to Pura Tanah Lot, a very famous Hindu temple in Bali. Tanah Lot (rhymes with Camelot) is special because it is built on a cliff edge in the middle of the ocean. You can only access the temple during low tide. We were lucky enough to JUST make it. We walked through the ocean and found ourselves in the middle of a Hindu blessing ceremony. We both drank from the holy spring and then got blessed by some Hindu monks. It was very cool.

They put rice on our foreheads and flowers behind our ears when we got blessed
Final dinner in Echo Beach
The time passed all too quickly. We left Bali on Friday and were so sad to leave. There is so much to see and experience in Bali. I definitely want to return to travel further in the island. It was a spring break I won't ever forget! But for now, it's back to reality and back to the books.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Sorry I haven't updated Asian Kara in a while. I got back from Koh Phi Phi, Thailand late Monday night and have been busy with classes and homework since. It's Friday now - classes are over and I've just about gotten the sand and paint off my body from my AMAZING long weekend in Thailand!

Leah and I began our journey at 5 am on Friday morning. Traveling was a real pain. We took a bus, train, airplane, cab and ferry to our destination. We finally arrived in Koh Phi Phi around 1pm, Thai time. Koh Phi Phi is a small island off the coast of Phuket. It is pronounced "Pee Pee" and not "Fee Fee" or "Ph-eye Ph-eye." It embarrasses me how most Americans don't even know where Thailand is on a map so please educate yourselves. I have been in way too many arguments with foreigners about how culturally ignorant and geographically illiterate my country is. It's really annoying, especially since I know it's true.

Thailand borders Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia.
Phi Phi is an incredible island. There are no cars allowed. Most of the people who live there are from Sweden, Australia or Canada. No stores are air conditioned. The island takes thirty minutes to walk from one end to the other. The entire island is like one massive market. You can only drink bottled water - so yes, we had to brush our teeth using bottled water. The main Thai bottled water brand is Pornthip, which we got a kick out of.

woo hoooo! PORNTHIP!

We were exhausted and sweaty when we arrived to Phi Phi. We got soaking wet on our 2 hour ferry ride because we sat on the edge with our feet dangling over the boat. Upon arriving, we grabbed our bags and set out to find some pad thai. We stumbled upon to a small eatery called Mr. Tee's. Our meals cost about $2 USD each and it was simply AMAZING! We ended up eating there three times over four days. The meal completed changed our moods. We walked twenty minutes to find our beach bungalow with no issues.

Twin Palms Bungalows - located 10 steps from the beach, bar and tattoo/ piercing parlor.

No dressers, tv, computer, cell phones, air conditioning or hot water. My kind of camping!

The biggest adjustment was the lack of Asians. I have been the minority in Singapore for almost two months now. Everyone in Phi Phi is a tourist. The island is flooded with Swedes, Australians and Canadians. Leah and I were kind of overwhelmed by it at first. But once we headed to the beach and saw all the beautiful white men, we got accustomed pretty quickly. We took three hour naps in the sand before getting ready to hit the town. 

A few of our exchange friends from NTU happened to be in Phi Phi the same time us as. We ran into them at the beginning of our night and all went to the Irish Pub together. The Thai islands are famous (or infamous, really) for serving drinks in sand buckets. They cost about $4 USD and contain whatever you want. It was so fun to walk around the town and beach at night seeing people in their 20's drinking out of buckets. Since our bungalow is so centrally located, we danced on the beach all night and slept in our bungalow only 10 steps away!

Our first buckets at Jordan's Irish Pub
The fire show at the beach bar right outside our bungalow
We spent the following day (Saturday) at the beach. Since it is unbearably hot and sunny, we rented lounge chairs and an umbrella for the entire day for about $3 USD. There are food vendors lined up along the beach and bought corn, fresh shrimp and spring rolls for lunch. THE FOOD IN THAILAND IS AMAZING! Leah and I probably ate about 12 pieces of corn between the two of us. It is SO good. 

This picture sums up our ENTIRE trip.

Before dinner we began our hike up to the famous Phi Phi Viewpoint. Along the way, I stopped to get a traditional Thai foot bath. A Thai foot bath is where you put your feet into a bath that is filled with hundreds of little fish. The little fish attack your feet and legs and bite off the dead skin. Leah is scared to death of fish so she passed. I was feeling daring (and there may or may not have been cute boys watching...) and decided to give it a go. It was one of the craziest sensations I've ever felt. It tickles and is slightly painful and completely overwhelming. It is an extreme version of the sensation when your foot falls asleep. It lasted twenty minutes and I freaked out the entire time. Luckily my awesome partner-in-crime ran to get me a drink midway through.

The lady had to physically hold me down...

My feet felt GREAT when it was done though! 
Then we began our hike up to the Viewpoint. It took about forty minutes and we were absolutely drenched in sweat because of the heat, humidity and hike itself. Of course it was absolutely worth it. I have never been too much of a "nature nut," but the sight of Phi Phi from the top of the island was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. We sat on a rock's edge and just stared at the view in silence for twenty minutes. There are no words or pictures that will ever describe that moment.

The beginning of our hike

Koh Phi Phi Don, Thailand
But we can only be serious for so long. After dinner, we hit the town for round two. We discovered an amazing rooftop bar called Banana Bar. We bought our buckets (pink, this time) and chatted up some Swedish people. It turns out they were actually in a Swedish boy band which I found hilarious. The bar had free neon body paint which everyone went nuts for (okay, mostly us..) and our night began. After Banana Bar, we hit our favorite beach bar for dancing.

Loving our pink buckets

We left our mark :)

Body paint courtesy of artist Leah Sweet
We signed up for an all-day boat tour of all the Phi Phi islands and sights on Sunday. It was called "Canadian Captain Bob's Booze Cruise." Captain Bob left Canada nine years ago and has been running daily tours on his sailboat ever since. There were about ten of us total. The people we met were all in their young 20s and had taken time off from work to travel the world. We all got along great and had the best day EVER. We went to Monkey Beach (island overloaded with monkeys,) Maya Bay (from the Leo DiCaprio movie 'The Beach,') and Viking Cave. We went snorkeling, cliff diving, cave exploring and got pulled in kayaks from the back of the sailboat. We were drinking, eating, laughing, soaking in the sun and having the best day of our lives. Even though we had never met any of the people before, we all became good friends and spent the rest of the night partying together - Captain Bob too!

Getting our snorkle on

Exploring Viking Cave

One of the most amazing moments of my life.. 

Captain Bob and his crewmen

Evil monkeys from Monkey Beach

Changi beer and Thai koozies

Our backdrop for the day.. so beautiful it brought us to tears. How lame.

Can't escape the Asian tourists - they love me!
The myths and stories behind Viking Cave are absolutely incredible. Deep within Viking Cave there are carvings on the wall that experts believe prove that America was actually discovered by the Chinese before Christopher Columbus. There are thousands of sacred birds inhabited in the Cave and because it was breeding season, we were not allowed to venture inside. Captain Bob explained to us that ten years ago, the Thai Mafia overtook Viking Cave and stole the sacred bird nests. Thai tradition claims that if you eat the nests, you will live forever. The Mafia stole the birds nests and sold them for thousands of dollars. The Thai government was forced to step in and protect the Cave. Thai governmental boats are set up around the Cave and circle the islands carrying MACHINE GUNS! Captain Bob told us that four years ago, he got a machine gun pulled on him because the Thai government thought he was with the Mafia. Later on when we were snorkling, we were actually approached by a Thai government boat. Yes, they had guns. Yes, we freaked out. And yes, everything was fine - it was just a routine check up. 

Exploring the cave on land and under water!
Our last night we realized we had not bought any souvenirs. When you live next to a tattoo/piercing parlor, it is only a matter of time before you get tatted or pierced. Don't worry family, we chose the latter. I got my second cartilage piercing and Leah got her bellybutton pierced. It is the perfect souvenir because we will always have Phi Phi with us. We spent our last night like we spent every other night - bucket in hand, body painted, dancing on the beach with foreigners. It was a trip I will never forget.

Chilling at our neighbors and showing off our piercings.

One last thing to leave you with...