Friday, October 30, 2015

Singapore: Malls on Malls on Malls

Heading out from Indonesia, I decided to do a day and a half layover in Singapore - just because I've never been and clearly I have a problem of trying to squeeze in way too much. Story of my life.

"There's nothing to do there but shop," warned my mother. My friend Kate sang the praises of their Night Safari, where you ride a train through the zoo and the animals all come out and frolic and dance (this is not exactly what she said, but it's what I envisioned). That was enough for me.

What It's All About:
Singapore! The great little city state on the Southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula.  Land of finance, transportation, and a zillion malls. It's known for being super clean, super rule-abiding, and super prosperous.

Financial district with merlion fountain in front; the symbol of Singapore.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Upon landing at the airport, I was immediately enthralled. So many ethnicities; what country are we in?! Everything's so clean and pretty! The airport itself was so nice and put together  (Cute cafes! Clean bathrooms! Amazing signage! Helpful, well-staffed info counters! Cool art!) that I may have putzed around for an entire hour after I landed, just marveling at all the things I've missed. My favorite part was stepping out of customs, and....there was no one waiting outside to harass you. Nobody seemed to even care that I had arrived (flashback to Bali, where I had exited and immediately been harassed by 20 people asking if I wanted taxis - I was so overwhelmed I beelined straight for the bathroom, where one enterprising man followed me the entire way, waited outside the bathrooms for me, and then pounced on me as I exited). Am I gushing over the Singapore airport too much here??
    The first cafe I saw in the airport - OMEN
    And look how cute the reserved seating on the train is!  NYC, take notes
  • The next day, I had plans to get some errands done - my backpack strap was fraying hard-core and was threatening to come unraveled (CRISIS) and I wanted to see if someone could fix it; I needed a visa to Sri Lanka (nothing like a little last-minute fire drill); and I also needed to purchase some more modest clothes for Sri Lanka/Egypt/etc. to not have the locals think I was some kind of disrespectful foreign hussy (looks like my work is cut out for me!).
Deep in the heart of Chinatown, while looking for a tailor to fix my backpack strap (and nerdily wearing my empty backpack, I'd like to point out), I came across PURE NAIL ART GOLD and got a little carried away. Unclear how I'm going to ever work in a professional environment again.

  • I didn't end up finding a tailor to fix my backpack (they kind of stared at me like I had two heads. Or like "I create beautiful wedding dresses, and you want me to touch THAT mangy thing??"), so I abandoned the search and just prayed extra hard that my backpack strap would survive until Sri Lanka. 
  • Then I took a boat tour down the Singapore River. I didn't mean to, I just happened to be walking along the river through the adorable neighborhoods of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, and then saw the boats. Kitschy yes, but I looooved the tour. They had some amazing recorded commentary, and lady on the commentary would make little jokes and have ridiculous sound effect (case in point: when they talked about Singapore's former street gangs, there were gunshot sounds and sounds of men being punched and such. Amazing). 
Wandering down Boat Quay, Financial District in the background. I think quay means harbor. That's what I've decided it means.
Eeeeee how cute is Clarke Quay and all its super brightly colored buildings!  
One more shot of the Dr. Seuss-land that is Clarke Quay. And that was the boat tour I took!
I'm on a boat. It was almost like a private tour because there were only like 4 other people, and it was the best.
Cruising past the Financial District. Apparently I showed up to Singapore on one of their clearest, haze-free days! Hooray!
This is Boat Quay, where 75% of Singapore's imports/exports used to come through (thank you, narrator lady!)
My favorite building ever, because it's a rainbow. I forgot what the narrator said about it, but it's important. I think it used to be a prison. Or a hospital. Or both, maybe both.

  • The rest of the day, I wandered all of Singapore's amazing, ridiculous mega-malls. You can seriously just get lost for the entire day - there are staircases and passageways to different buildings everywhere, some escalators skip floors and you end up God-knows-where, and all the buildings are interconnected through a series of maze-like, winding, complex passageways. So you're walking in some shopping complex, you take a random passage, and boom! You're in another mall!  And then you find a staircase and go up, and magic!  It's yet another mall!  This place is like a paradise of malls. It's incredible. I wandered through the shopping centers of Raffles Place, ION Orchard, near Clarke Quay, Chinatown, etc. 
  • That evening, I met up with an ex-bf Joey (and the tabloids go wild) to catch up over a meal and a drink - he had recently moved to Singapore for work. It was really nice getting to catch up and hearing about life in Singapore vs. NYC.  For drinks, we headed to the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel, which is a famous building in Singapore - it has a boat at the top of the building, and the roof has an infinity pool that overlooks all of Singapore.
This is the Marina Bay Sands building - see the boat on the top of the building!?  Also, there's a music/laser light-show that comes on at night, kind of like the Bellagio in Vegas, and it's amazing
Joey and I each only had one $20 drink, but the view was more than worth it
Part of the view from the top of the hotel - these are the Gardens By The Bay
And from the other side of the roof, it's the prettiest view of all of Singapore! Siiiigh

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • The word "quay" is apparently pronounced "kee", and not "kwayy."  Why would you spell it like that then, Singapore??
  • After all was said and done, I didn't actually make it to the Night Zoo Safari, because the lady at my hostel said she'd been twice and it was rubbish because she didn't see any animals either time. Oh, and it's 1.5 hours by transit out of the city.
  • Speaking of transit, Singapore's MRT system is the loveliest and most easily navigable transportation system of all time! OF ALL TIME. All the trains come every 3 minutes on the dot, and everything is so clean and air-conditioned and orderly!  Not to mention the adorable patterned/themed reserved seating.
  • The roads area all super-British here. Like Clarke St. Or Upper Cross St. I can't handle how easy it is to get around.

The Hotel:
Omg guys. I'm staying at a hostel which I chose purely based on its name - The Beary Best Hostel.  And the entire place is bear-themed. It's kind of amazing.

Hoards of bears aside, the hostel is actually great and locally-run, and the front desk people are the greatest.

This is the common room. The bears are out. of. control.

Moment of the Day:
Oh, just the time I almost died when my boat from Gili T to Bali was super late (island time, people) - so when I got to the Bali port, there was minimal time to get to the airport (1.5 hours away) to catch my flight to Singapore.  A taxi driver promised he'd drive "like a race car" if I paid him a certain amount - I had nothing to lose; I was determined to make my flight.

And the driver stuck to his word.  He seriously shot out of the port like bat out of hell, and he maniacally ran every red light (except for one that had a policeman waiting at it, for which he apologized profusely), drove on shoulders, drove wrong ways down streets and up off-ramps and down on-ramps and everything in between. He would yell theatrically at cars stopped at red lights and make vrooming noises at the slow ones in his way. I think deep down inside, it didn't matter if I was in the car or not - this man was in his element and loving every second. Let's just say, it was a very adrenaline-filled hour-long ride (down from 1.5 hours!) to the airport, but I did make it onto my flight.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Gili Islands, Indonesia: Paradise Has Turtles! And Bugs.

Headed out to the Gili Islands the next morning from Bali by fast boat.  I didn't realize what an undertaking it was - first an hour-long shuttle to the East side of Bali, then cattle herding onto a tiny, not-air-conditioned, squishy boat with hard seats for an additional 2 hours.  But I was excited for paradise. And scuba diving!

What It's All About:
The Gili Islands are a set of 3 islands off the coast of the Indonesian island of Lombok (directly east of Bali).  They're known for their insanely gorgeous waters and diving/snorkeling, and each of the islands has their own vibe. Gili Trawangan (called Gili T for short) is the biggest island, and is the party/most-developed island, Gili Meno is known for being kind of hippie-dippy, and Gili Air is more romantic/retreat/resort.  

I stayed in Gili Trawangan (which I realllly wanted to call Tra-WANG-an, but is actually pronounced Tra-wahng-en, sad fact) for a couple nights, just wanting some beach and scuba time.  

The perfect beaches of Gili T

A Gili T Overview:
  • Lawlessness. Just kidding. But seriously, you know the vibe has changed when your boat pulls up to the shore of the island and men start tossing all your bags onto the beach. Some were dropped into the water (oops so sorry backpack, hope there wasn't a laptop in you) and some were put so close to the water that you had to run and get your bag before the waves claimed them.

Men unloading bags from the tiny, stiflingly-hot boat. They were seriously tossing these things around like NBD.
  • And then the entire island is unpaved dirt roads with no motor vehicles.  It's the weirdest combination - there are tons of restaurants and beach bars and dive centers by the water with young, scantily-dressed holidayers, but then you walk a block or two into the island, and it's straight-up rural town. Like chickens in the streets and wood shacks and cows.  Oh, and the locals are Muslim. So there's incredibly conservatively-dressed people and the call to prayer sounds all the time.  It's so WEIRD.
Tourist-targeted main street by the water
And tiny horses adorned with pom-poms are the main mode of transportation!!! Along with bicycles, but those aren't fun to photograph
And then a block later, chickens! Chickens everywhere. The locals like to sit outside their houses during the day and chat and harass tourists to buy things, and so I'm sure they all enjoyed staring at me photographing a chicken when they were running around literally everywhere
But then look at this beeeeeach

And Then I Encounter Problem #1:
  • Wanting to treat myself to a non-hostel for my 2 days in paradise, I booked myself a nice room near the center of town.
Oh new room, you seem so normal and pretty

  • Later that evening, I was happily on my bed typing away when I see a small bug crawl across the pillow. Gross, but it's the tropics and it's SE Asia - "there are bugs everywhere," I thought to myself. I squished it and used a tissue to drop it into the toilet (so it doesn't crawl back out and attack me, obviously).  A couple minutes later, another bug on the pillow catches my eye. Double gross. I squish it again and drop it in the toilet to join its friend. Half an hour later, another tiny bug appears on the bed. I grab the remote and squish it - and a small pool of blood oozes out of it.  
  • OMG OMG. BEDBUGS. I've never seen a bedbug before, but my paranoia about them has led me to google them multiple times and it kind of looks similar to what I remember showing up in google images.  Panic mode. I think about my options.
  • To add drama, the island is currently in a blackout (oh, I didn't mention that- apparently the island gets island-wide blackouts fairly frequently.  When the power went out at 8pm that night, a worker had cheerfully been like "It should come back in a couple hours, but who knows, might be a whole day!")  The lights in my room were on due to a backup generator, but there was no A/C or anything else. It's 9:30pm and the streets are pitch black from the outage. I even debated bringing out my travel sheets and sleeping on the floor. 
  • And then I realized there was no possible way I could sleep in that bed or anywhere near it. I once saw someone comment that if you had bedbugs, you were better off just burning down your entire house - dramatic maybe, but it stuck with me.  What if they infected my backpack and I carried bedbugs around the world?? I ran downstairs to the adjoining restaurant (same owner) and quietly explained my issue. I was super-nice about it, I told them I felt bad and I wouldn't push the issue, but was there somewhere else I could stay?
  • The first man tried to convince me it was ok and went and sprayed bedbug spray all over the bed. Um, no. And then it turned into a big to-do, with all the workers coming out and asking me to explain the story and chatting amongst themselves looking disturbed. I felt terrible, but told myself I'd be firm about not staying there. Another worker was incredibly kind and padded down the dark streets in his bare feet to show me a bunch of other guesthouses. Most of the proprietors were sleeping, and he'd have to wake them up to show me a room (is it possible to feel more terrible?). A bunch were full, and the other ones I did get to see were incredibly eerie  - bc of the blackout, showing me the rooms entailed shining a flashlight into a pitch black room. They all looked like horror movies waiting to happen. I was not loving it.
  • Then the manager ended up coming in from his house to talk with me. He was so, so concerned - he said he'd do anything to help me find a new place, but begged me to not write anything about it in online reviews or TripAdvisor. You could see the panic in his eyes. I simply told him I wasn't looking for payback or vindication or anything; just a new place to stay. He ended up taking me down the street to a friend's guesthouse, where they had an empty bungalow (and cheaper than my previous hotel)!  So all's well that ends well, but it was pure panic for me and I dreamt I had bedbugs crawling in all my things the rest of the night. Oh, and I got eaten alive by mosquitoes in my new bungalow - but better mosquitoes than bedbugs, I always say.
Sorry for posting this, but as a PSA, THIS IS A BEDBUG. With blood oozing out after I squished him. I took this photo in case the people didn't believe me or tried to convince me it wasn't a bedbug.

Also, how ironic is it that I haven't encountered bedbugs in a single hostel, but the hotel I tried to treat myself to.....?

Highlight of the Trip:
The next morning, I went on a dive to an area called Shark Point. HOW BALLER is that name.  First off, the water was gorgeous and so clear and you could see forever. The boat didn't even have to drive that far out.

There were so many cool, beautiful fish - we saw an octopus scooting along the ocean floor, some gorgeous parrotfish, and a bunch of clownfish living in an anemone (is it sad that most of my fish knowledge comes from Finding Nemo?).

And then we saw SHARKS. Like, real-looking, medium-sized, gray sharks - it was wild.  One was just swimming by creepily, and the other one, we swum up into a rock and it was chilling there in its rock home.  It was seriously one of the coolest, coolest things I've ever seen in my entire life.  If I could have excitedly shouted underwater, I would have. And then I would have gotten us attacked maybe.

AND THEN WE SAW TURTLES. LIKE FINDING NEMO TURTLES. There was one swimming up over our heads and it looked just like the a movie.  And there was another one on the ocean floor resting.

I stole this photo off the internet, but it looked JUST LIKE THIS. Framed by the light and everything.

This was the most insane/awesome/life-changing dive of my entire life. Never mind I've only been 3 times. I'm fully embracing my newfound love of diving. I only wish I had a GoPro!

The Rest of the Trip:
Consisted mainly of lounging by the beach, drinking coconuts, and exploring. There was also a time I rented the world's ghettoest bike, and I noisily rattled down the streets and everyone stared at me like I was like a one-man parade.  And then I got hopelessly lost (navigating big cities, no problem. Tiny dirt paths on a tiny island? Hopeless.) and ended up in some rando field with cows and farmers and chickens everywhere.  I did eventually find my way out but I'm pretty sure I was the only tourist that's been in that area ever.

Plus side of paradise? Every restaurant has a lounging section and they all serve watermelon juice
Some of the fancier places have beachside lounging bungalows
And they all have coconuts!
Washing all the bedbugs off me. Just kidding. Yayyy beautiful water
Some parts of main street are incredibly pretty
And this was my view from dinner. Sigh.

Tiny Problem #2:
This is turning into quite a post. Anyhow, I'm clearly attempting a pattern of positive/negative, positive/negative here. Like good news, bad news.  Just to break it up a little.

As a side note to all the great things in Gili T, I also have one not-so-great thing to say about it.  For me personally, the harassment levels here are definitely the highest they've ever been.  The locals often chill in the street outside of their houses or businesses, and there are not many people usually, so they often yell at the passerbys.  Most of them know a couple basic phrases in every language due to the tourists, so 90% of the time, I get Japanese phrases yelled at me.

I totally understand why and it doesn't offend me: 1.) it's pretty normal to racially profile here; 2.) they're trying to sell you things or strike up a convo; 3.) they're probably incredibly bored sitting outside all day; 4.) there's not many people walking the streets; 5.) it's also pretty rare to see a solo girl; and 6.) when your entire island relies on tourism, it makes sense.  But to be honest, it's just not that fun.

I can either ignore them, which makes me feel like a jerk because they really don't mean any harm, or if I quickly respond "Hi" or smile and move on, they always ask where I'm from. And "the USA" is not an acceptable answer. It's the same as it's been in the rest of Asia, but it's especially bad here. Every single person has followed up with "Why you look Japanese then?" or "Why you have slanted eyes?"  In two days, I've gotten the actual slanted eyes pull three separate times. Again, they don't mean to be offensive so I don't take that part personally - when I explain that I was born in the US but my parents are from Taiwan, they're generally curious and interested to know more - but having to explain myself constantly starts to get really irritating. I guess I've just never had to be so hyper-aware of my race in my life. Even growing up in a overwhelmingly-Caucasian community, I've never had to think about it as much as I have the past two days.

I just think getting constantly yelled at in Japanese phrases and having to explain why I'm Asian isn't a conversation I want to have 25 times in a day. I see other people, and they get asked where they're from, and they say "Australia", and the convo is over.  The end.

Finale To The Wordiest Post Ever:
Gili T was beautiful and great - if a close scare with bedbugs and getting harassed in Japanese is the price to pay for getting to swim with sharks and turtles, I'd pay it every time.  I'm starting to say this about everywhere, but I would love to come back and get to see the other Gili islands, Gili Air and Gili Meno. Also, fun fact, you can get a beachfront bungalow to yourself for so, so cheap. I'm so glad I got the chance to visit, but was OK moving on this morning - I miss the hustle of the city! Onto Singapore!

Last final side note, on the boat ride back to Bali, there were dolphins diving alongside the boat and it was MAGICAL. MAGIC.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bali, Indonesia: I'm in Bali-dise!!

Ok, I realize Bali-dise doesn't really sound like paradise at all, but it just seemed to be such an appropriate word.  Anyways, I'm here! (Ok, I've been here a couple days, but the combo of terrible wifi at my Bali hotel + beachbeachbeach + currently on a tiny Indonesian island that has no electricity = falling off the blogging wagon temporarily).  But here I am and ready to update!

What It's All About:
Bali is a gorgeous island paradise - it's one of the most well-known islands of Indonesia's thousands (it's a big, main one).  It's actually quite a big island, and there are tons of cities/neighborhoods you can stay in depending on what kind of vibe you're looking for.  I stayed in the city of Kuta/Legian, which is one of the most developed and touristy and very close to the airport.

Bali's Jimbaran Beach
Bali is absolutely beautiful and has been such a great place to unwind - there's a million things to do here, beautiful beaches and culture galore, and it's incredibly developed for tourism. If you can overlook the fact that it seems to be Australia's own personal Cancun (they are everywhereeeeeeeee), and you will get hounded/harassed in the street 24/7 by people offering taxis, motorbike rentals, massages, clothes, boats, surfing lessons, froyo, food, sarongs, magic mushrooms, etc. etc.; it's paradise.
Dare to tell me that Bali-dise isn't the perfect word for this photo

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Peace out, haze! Flew out from Penang to Bali.
Byeeeeee, Malaysian haze! Though I did momentarily wonder how the pilot could see where he was going...
And Baliiiiii, I'm here! Yes, I may have booked it to the beach as fast as possible.
My beautiful hotel, which was $30/night. Why do people even bother honeymooning in Tahiti and its $500/night hotel rooms!?!
Met back up with Kat, who had been chilling in Bali while I was in Penang.  And we obviously got matching hot pink sunnies.
Beach time is never complete without coconuts...
...and sunset yoga pics. Guess who can be as basic as they want to on their own blog
  • The biggest thing I was dying to do was surfing. I took surfing lessons in San Diego a long time ago, and I wasn't terrible at it, and I loved it. Yes, those reasons are correlated. The area I was staying, Kuta/Legian, is known for its ginormous waves. So the next morning, Kat and I headed to a surf lesson.  Our instructor was named Em, and he was the best.
And the surfing people gave us photos! Given how many times we fell down, their photographer must have been a pro to catch some of these
Oops never mind, here's me falling down
  • It was so unbelievably fun, and the hours zoomed by. And about half the ocean went up my nose and I sunburnt my face to a hot pink crisp, but it was totally worth it. 
  • Everything in Bali is amazingly cheap: $6 massages, $5 pedicures, all the cheap clothing you could want, and $4 Nasi Goreng (delish Balinese fried rice).  I think I was involved in every single one of these over the weekend.
    I also maybe spent half the weekend drinking watermelon juices or head-sized coconuts
  • Day 3 of Bali-dise, Kat and I hired a personal driver to zoom us to other parts of the island.
First up was Nusa Dua Beach in the South of Bali - gorgeously white sand and warm pretty water
    Nusa Dua and its crystal-clear waters. Photos like this are what happens when you travel with a baller photographer friend.
    • After Nusa Dua, we drove out to Tanjung Benoa, where we were given a choice of water activities. Kat and I chose snorkeling, which was the most incredible snorkeling ever. A boat shuttled us out farther into the harbor, and we were given bags of bread to feed the fish and dropped into the water. I have seriously never seen so many gorgeously vibrant, pretty, colorful, tropical fish in my entire life, à la Finding Nemo in real life. And jellyfish!  It may have helped that our boat driver kept dropping bread crumbs into the water - the fish would swarm to eat them, and there were literally HUNDREDS of every color, shape and size all around us. It was ridiculous. Only downside is the water was super choppy, so we kept getting washed around to and fro, and then I got a little nauseous from getting knocked around. But overall, one of the coolest, coolest things. 
    Boat ride out, snorkel in hand
    •  And then we had a romantic oceanside lunch at Jimbaran Bay. This beach was my favorite of all - there were so few people, the waves were huge, and the sand was like powder. 
    Location of romantic beachside lunch. The restaurant let you come inside and choose your fish to be fried. 
    And then these guys came by to serenade us, just to up the romance factor. When asked if they could play Taylor (not by me this time, I swear!), they rounded to the closest thing and played Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years", which is one of the prettiest songs of all time. It was perfect listening to this man singing it in his Indonesian accent.
    Jimbaran Beach, you are my fave
    • We topped off the night with a sunset visit to Uluwatu Temple, or the Water Temple.  It's set on the side of a cliff where you can look out on the ocean, and the views are completely breathtaking.  Only downside, I was promised monkeys (they apparently like to steal your stuff) and there were none. I think I was the only person in all of Uluwatu that was disappointed by this.
    One side of Uluwatu Temple
    The main area of Uluwatu Temple. There were all these winding pathways right alongside the ocean and it was beyond pretty. Also, the waves crashing against the cliffs below = magic.
    Oh, there was also a temple part itself. Strangest thing, they made you wear sarongs to enter the temple (both males and females), but didn't seem to care what was going on with your top situation. There were girls in tiny crop tops and such, which was apparently ok, but the sarongs had to go below your knees. Weird. Maybe the Indonesian think knees are especially disrespectful?
    • And then there was a traditional fire dance at the temple!  It's called the Kecak dance, and it tells a story accompanied by dancers and chanters and FIRE. Connie cliffnotes version: A queen wants a golden deer and sends the king to catch it, leading her to be kidnapped (since the king is gone trying to catch that darn deer). The king then has to enlist the help of a bunch of magic monkey warriors to go save her, and they are successful, but they end up destroying a lot of stuff and causing mayhem.  I personally believe the queen should have had to suffer for her own poor life choices, but that's not the way the story goes.
    Sun is setting, and the fires are lit
    These men were everything - the soundtrack (which is basically them chanting "Chachachachachacha" over and over), the background actors, the props, etc. 
    Here's the happy queen and king before she makes the terrible decision that she HAS TO have a golden deer in her life 
    Here is where the queen gets kidnapped by a man in a giant beard and red face 
    Here is the clever white monkey warrior rescuing said queen
    AND THIS WAS THE CRAZIEST PART OF ALL. The white monkey warrior is caught and they try to burn him to death. And he escapes by KICKING THE FIRE BALLS. WITH HIS BARE FEET. ALL OF THEM. Like, he was kicking these fire balls left and right and they would go FLYING like 20 feet into the air and almost hit people (who had to duck) and objects and such. How they didn't set the entire temple and/or a person on fire is beyond me.
    And here is a photo of me with the dancers

    Sadly, Balinesian paradise had to eventually come to an end.  I would love to come back someday, continue to pay $30/night for hotel rooms, and visit all the lovely parts of Bali I didn't get to see!  Apparently there's gorgeous rice terraces in Ubud (my favorite crop, obv) and a place nicknamed Monkey Forest where there are THOUSANDS OF MONKEYS that run rampant and steal your things and climb all over you.  Sounds like a dream.

    This also marked the end of the Kat & Connie adventures, as Kat headed back home to the States and I am off to the tiny beautiful Indonesian islands called the Gili Islands!