Monday, October 29, 2012

Holiday in Cambodia

This past Friday was a public holiday here in Singapore. Prior to my recess week, I knew about it and had planned to travel somewhere, preferably solo. I finally decided on Cambodia, one of the countries on my to-visit list.

My outbound flight departed from Singapore at 6:30 AM Thursday morning. Since taking the first MRT wouldn't get me to the airport on-time and I didn't wanna pay for a cab ride, I took the last MRT to the airport Wednesday night and camped there until the morning came. First experience camping at Changi Airport wasn't all too bad, considering I finally had my first doze of Dunkin Donuts coffee after 3 months.

I took a tuktuk right away from the Phnom Penh airport to a bus company's office and headed to Siem Reap, which was 6 hours away. Some parts of the ride was quite bumpy, and the villages in between looked more like wastelands; impoverished and very under-developed. Anyhow, I took a tuktuk as I arrived there to go up north of Siem Reap where the Angkor Wat and the other temples are. It was quite breathtaking especially during sunset.

After sunset, I was all set to go to Channa and Thomas' home. This Khmer-Danish couple owns a beautiful villa hidden in the heart of Angkor Archeological Park and often hosts guests to stay with the family. I somehow overlooked what Thomas said in the booking e-mail about the impossibility of me finding their home on my own. After a phone call by the tuktuk driver, Thomas finally came on a motorbike and took me to his family's home. I was welcomed like a family as Channa showed me my room: a peaceful little pavilion in the beautiful yard. I quickly showered, then enjoyed a Khmer home-cooked dinner with the family as we got to know one another better. To end the nice evening, I had a chance to help Amanda, their 8 year-old, with her Math homework as I thought to myself "What a true homestay experience!" I didn't have the chance  to take any picture due to the rush in the morning to get the bus back to Phnom Penh, but I would highly recommend Channa's Homestay to anyone visiting Siem Reap.

While waiting for the bus, a quite respectable-looking mid-age man approached me and asked where I came from. As I answered, a glimpse of excitement shown on his face and he started to tell stories. Stories about the good old days of his youth spent in a refugee camp in Pulau Galang, Riau, Indonesia, of how well fed and treated he was, and how he came to Christ during those times. He's pretty up-to-date with the Indonesian current news, maybe more than I am. He really wish he could come and visit Indonesia again one day.

Arriving back in Phnom Penh, I walked my way by the river towards National Museum, Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and the Independence Monument. The late King Norodoum Sihanouk has just passed away 2 weeks ago, and people are still mourning. The Royal Palace was closed to public as crowd still gathered and prayed in front of its gate.

Feeling exhausted, I chose to save Wat Phnom and Central Market for Saturday just before I head to the airport. I tried to visit the night market by the river, yet it was really mediocre since I've had experienced much better night markets before. Chilling out at Mad Monkey, the hostel that I stayed in Phnom Penh, I met another exchange from NTU. I guess it kinda became common by now meeting a fellow exchange everywhere I travel :)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Crossing Out 2 Items in 1 Shot

This past weekend has just been crazily amazing! I had never thought I would crossed out 2 items of my Singapore bucket list in one weekend while managing to fit dim sum meals in between. So the first item of business was the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool. Thanks to Mike for initiating the room booking, we managed to get 16 people to come over, chip in for the room, and just chill on a Friday evening by the infinity pool. It was quite an experience sneaking that many people to both the room and the pool, hiding from the security people, and asking for extra key cards "just for the pool". What a night!

I was set the next day for a dim sum brunch over at Si Chuan Dou Hua restaurant with some folks from NTU Deli Aprecio. It was a really good and legit dim sum experience.

At first, I was contemplating whether or not to join Zhinwei and Joey (both are involved with NTU Cru) visiting Universal Studios Singapore. Yet I soon remembered that the student discount of 20% was about to end and in heartbeat, I headed to Sentosa Island to join them. It was such a small park, yet I really enjoyed the rides and of course the awesome fellowship with these bros.

Coming out of the park, we had a dim sum dinner at Din Tai Fung. We were quite hungry, let me just put it that way.

Rain and thunderstorm soon started, and we decided to just stay in and chat over the free-flow hot tea. The topics, mostly about America, were quite wide in variety such as sport teams, politics, outdoor activities, travels, but mostly it all came back to food. I had to say it was just a really great day of fun, bonding, and getting to know them better.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hong Kong Madness

After reading this post's title, please don't be too judgmental. I know I had just came back from Thailand and Vietnam the Sunday before, but I'm not as addicted to travelling as you might think haha :D

So how I ended up going to Hong Kong was quite an interesting story. Right before leaving for Vietnam, I got a text from friends with whom I also did Kuala Lumpur back in August. I booked my flights right in a heart beat, and kaboom! That's where I spent the past weekend; a New York City of the Eastern world, 4 hours away from Singapore. Such a crowded city that even our hostel was located at a residential flat building along with a couple other hostels, and a room for 6 was only about 36 feet-square.

We started off the first night in Hong Kong with a dim sum dinner at a humble stall downstairs from our hostel at Nathan Road. With happy stomach, we were able to plan for the next days. After getting some rough ideas of what we were going to do, it was time for some exploration. Kowloon park and Avenue of the Stars were so gorgeous at night.

The next day was a very packed one. We started the day off busing to Shek-O to hike the Dragon's Back trail. I still can't get over how helpful and friendly the bus driver was. He actually made another passenger go up to the deck where we were sitting to tell us that we've arrived at our stop.

The hike itself was quite easy and quick. In about 1 hour we were able to reach the peak and enjoy this gorgeous view.

Since the day was still early, we walked around the Central area for the Sun Yat Sen memorial and various markets along the waterfront.


And somehow also made it to the Victoria's peak as well as picnicking on the rooftop garden of IFC mall.

The group split on Sunday since some wanted to go to Macau and some wanted to explore the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Mongkok markets. I went with the second since I wanted to get some souvenirs. I headed back early to the hostel to repack before I flew back only to find that nobody was at the reception desk and our the key to our new room were nowhere to be found. The thing is that they also moved our stuffs to the new rooms. Huge thanks to Heather; we finally found a stack of card keys from the unattended reception desk and tried breaking into each room to look for my backpack. It's Hong Kong after all, gotta do it action-movie style.

By the way, I still owe 80 cents on my Octopus card due to my purchase of gums at the airport. Anyone heading to Hong Kong can use it, just remember it will deduct my debt right away once you top-up

Monday, October 8, 2012

Recess Week part II: Big Hit in Thailand

We said goodbye to Vietnam for the moment and hailed to another South East Asia beauty: Bangkok. As for now I'm still in a speechless and *shaking-my-head* mode of all the amazingly random things there, but let's start on the Pattaya day trip. It was the closest beach to Bangkok so it's a good way of sampling the beauty of Thai beaches. First activity in Pattaya, though, was riding the elephants. Yes, there's an elephant village near the beach. Only in Thailand haha. The beach was quite crowded during the day, and from what I heard Pattaya is actually one of the quite shady spots in Thailand where the tourists love to go. Oh well, beach wasn't quite a big deal but Tiffany's Show definitely was! It was the Broadway for prettiest and most talented lady boys in Thailand. They were such princesses and they'd chase after you after the show to get you take a picture with them (and hence your tip).

So what does a city tour of Bangkok look like? Temples, temples, and more temples. Oh, and the grand palace that looks like a temple too. If you're feeling cheap, look for one of those 3-cents tuk-tuk ride. The driver would tale you to few temples but he got a task for the passengers. Beside taking you to the temples, he would take you to jewelry stores and ask you to pretend to be a potential buyer so that he can get the free gasoline voucher to take you around.

Khao San road is where the wild things are, as featured in the "Hangover 2". Backpacker ghetto full of night market stalls, massage houses, bars, restaurants, lady boys, and other random happenings. Shopping there isn't so great, but street pad thai is cheap and decent. It was raining so we decided to go into the McDonald's, ordered a drink, and eat our pad thai dinner there. All the sudden, a random Vietnamese Australian guy with his friend asked if we were Singaporeans. How have we become such, oh my? Apparently these guys were past NTU exchange students who are just spending months travelling in Southeast Asia at the moment. They have been, let's just say, through a lot of random things. But they knew where the free and hygienic toilet is where they also gave free soda (which happened to be a pub with lady boys as ushers). And they know how to distinguish lady boys from real ladies accurately, which is by asking directly (Ann tried this to a hostel employee before asking about nearby shows but he gave a not-so-pretty face. Woops). No offense to Thai ladies (you're amazing just the way you are), but that got me to question the femininity of the ladies I saw in Thailand thereafter.

Ok so the overall best thing to do in Bangkok, well other than getting Thai massage, is shopping.  Chatuchak market is where you can find everything under the sun, but I prefer the cheap and trendy fashion items. Not satisfied? Head to the outdoor market at Siam Square on the way back but expect slightly higher prices. Still have money to splurge? Go to the 81st floor of Baiyoke Sky, which is the tallest building in Bangkok, and get a nice buffet dinner with the best view of Bangkok just for about US$ 20.

Recess Week part I: Bonjour Vietnam!

What a wonderful week it has been. I'm sitting now in my dorm room thinking where did my recess week go? It was definitely the highlight of my exchange semester. I flew to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam as my recess week commenced 2 Fridays ago. Having many Vietnamese friends back in US, I was really enthusiastic about the whole experience. All of which was possible thanks tho the hospitality of Rensy and her family who have let us be a part of their household for 5 days.

First night in Vietnam was all about the coolest hangouts and food. Rensy took us to her favorite bo bit tet place downtown and walked us around the Notre Dame Basilica. Next to Notre Dame was a park where Ho Chi Minh youths like to hang out over coffee and street snacks. It was really cool to hang out on a Friday night just like they do, but it's even cooler to try the very original pho at the restaurant that made the dish for the first time. At Pho Hoa Pasteur was born my favorite comfort dish of the winter, by a man named Mr. Hoa. Now we know why pho restaurants all over the world love that name.

Weekend scene in Ho Chi Minh was just like any other weekday. I was surprised that they have a 6-day work and school weeks. Amidst the busy streets, we headed over to Ben Thanh market to shop for souvenirs. Bargaining power and a local translator came very handy this time (Thanks, Rensy!). After such a tiring shopping trip, we made a stop at Nhu Lan, a banh mi bakery with a proper deli counter that has existed since the days of the French. Since most attractions opened all week long, we saved the trip to Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Basilica, and Central Post Office on for Sunday. It also happened to be the full moon night, so it was just perfect for heading to Chinatown and saw the commotion at lantern street.

After a having a couple laid-back days, we had a couple days of bigger trips. We cruised on a small speedboat to the Mekong Delta at My Tho with another group of exchange friends from NTU who happened to be in town. It was quite rainy and muddy that day. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to float on a wooden boat, saw how coconut candies were made, and had a python wrapped around my neck. It was also quite surprising to meet someone from Philly on the same trip. At the end of the day, we went crazy over karaoke and saying "see-you-later"s to the other group until people on the street side started to wave to us as well. It was too much fun that it was so hard to wake up the next morning for another trip to Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi tunnel. Thanks to the "Gangnam Style" anthem playing in the cab on our way to the tour agency, I became quite pumped and knew it was gonna be a great day :D The bus rides were quite boring, but our guide was hilarious and spoke very good English. The Cao Dai temple stop was only 30 minutes since we were only there to see the religious service of the Cao Dai faith, which is an interesting mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam. The rest of the trip was spent at the Cu Chi tunnel where I got to learn about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective, which is way beyond the scope of my high school US History class.

It was quite sad to leave this beautiful unMcDonald'sed country where I could really enjoy good coffee and a lot of fresh herbs. I'll never forget the near-to-death crossing the streets and reckless tour driver driving on the wrong wrong side experiences. Special thanks to Rensy and her family who have let us stay in their home, shared their dining table of delicious Vietnamese home-cooked meals, and showed huge hospitality during our stay in Ho Chi Minh.