World Hopping 2013: A year in pictures

It’s 2014, and I’m looking forward to some downtime before traveling again. New places and new experiences are great, but there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed!

While going over some pictures, I saw just how amazing 2013 was for me. Last year, I traveled to nine different countries on three different continents. I got to see my mother in Vancouver, celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday in Shanghai, and moved to the Middle East to be with the love of my life. I turned 26 in Hong Kong, spent Christmas in Thailand and rang in the new year in Bali with friends. Life was good. Life IS good.

20 different airports later, and it’s 2014. I will always remember this year as the year I realized that I am a traveler. I love traveling. I want to travel, and I will always keep traveling. Hope you’lll all be around to share with!

January 2014

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 Counting down in DC!

February 2013

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Spending Chinese New Year (and freezing my ass off!) with my grandmother in Suzhou

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Meeting the newest member of the family, Doudou in Shanghai(豆豆,meaning “little bean” in Chinese)

March 2013

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Grandma’s 80th birthday in Shanghai! This is called a birthday peach (寿桃, shoutao), and symbolizes longevity

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Inside is 99 little peaches; 9 in Chinese sounds like “long” and symbolizes long life.

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Scaling the Great Wall after a snowstorm…not the greatest idea.

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My good-bye party. Byebye Beijing!

April 2013

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Celebrating Easter with my bunny in Abu Dhabi!

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 Adjusting to pink limos and the forbidden pork…

May 2013

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Fell in love with Istanbul

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 Enjoying the thermal pools at Pammukkale

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Taking a dip in Cleopatra’s Pool

June 2013

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Amazing meal at Armani Ristorante in Dubai

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 On top of the world at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

July 2013

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First henna experience at the Central Souk in Abu Dhabi

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July 2013: Visiting my mom in Vancouver, my hometown.

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Isn’t Vancouver beautiful?

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Visiting Capilano Suspension Bridge with Tim!

August 2013

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Taking a walk on Lanikai Beach in Hawaii

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View from Pali Lookout in Oahu.

September 2013

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Ok, I admit, the most exciting thing that happened to me this month was that Magnolia Bakery opened in my city

October 2013

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Throughly enjoying my first foray into Europe, Prague!

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Beautiful view of the Charles Bridge

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Posing in a panda hat that somehow makes Czech women look sexy, and me look immature…

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Learning about Princess Sisi in Vienna

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Ferris wheel that survived WWII

November 2013

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Celebrating our two year anniversary in Abu Dhabi

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Celebrating my birthday by myself (*sniff) in Hong Kong…but don’t feel too sorry for me, my birthday dinner was at the most amazing Cantonese restaurant!

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The Water Cube in Beijing. Remember Michael Phelps in 2008?

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I lived in Beijing for three years, and this is the first time I’ve ever visited the Bird’s Nest

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Wonder if it’s been full since the Olympics?

December 2013

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Celebrating my little sister’s eight birthday in Shanghai

 

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Staying at a beautiful hotel on the bund…too bad it was too smoggy to actually see the bund…

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Starbucks, Chinese-style!

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Taking a walk by the Shanghai bund

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Pigeon Slangin’ in Chengdu

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Celebrating Paris’ 27th at ABC cooking studio in Beijing

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I made this!

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Petting tigers at Tiger Kingdom in Phuket

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Feeding elephants in Phuket

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Posing with men prettier than me…

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Standing in the aquamarine waters of Ko Phi Phi

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Celebrating Christmas in Bangkok…stuffed Christmas tree anyone?

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Chasing sunsets in Bali

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Welcoming the new year with friends in Bali!

And that was my year! Fingers-crossed that this year will be better than the last ^_^

 

 

5 things I hated about Bali

My last post was called 5 things I loved about Bali; I think it’s only fair that I talk about the dark side too. Hence, this post.

What could I possibly hate about a place as beautiful as Bali?

1. Traffic

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Yup, I LOVED it.

When planning this trip to Bali, we decided on staying in Nusa Dua for a number of reasons, one being cheaper accomodation and the other being less crowds. However this meant that we were 20 some kilometers away from Kuta, where all the action is. No big deal, right?

WRONG!

Every time we wanted to go to Kuta meant at least an hour and a half, three hours round trip, stuck in traffic. Nobody follows any rules here, and the hordes of motorbikes don’t make navigating the roads any easier. To make matters worst, the roads are narrow and poorly designed, with two lanes going in either direction. Add the holiday crowds to the equation, and it’s complete gridlock. After a few times we decided that nothing in Kuta was worth the time spent in the car.

We scheduled 3 full hours to go to Tanah Lot to see the sunset. The sunset was at around 6:40, and we left our hotel at 3:15. Our driver told us it should take us an hour and a half to get there, tops. We figured we’d get there a little early, look around, and then leisurely walk to a spot where we could take a picture of Tanah Lot while the sun was setting.

It took us almost three and a half hours to get there.

We literally had to race the sun to try and get the shot we wanted, and still missed it by 10 minutes.

My advice, skip Bali during the holidays. The traffic is horrendous, the beaches are overrun with people and their cameras, and it’s their rainy season.

Which brings me to…

2. The rain

We were lucky that we got three full days of sunshine and clear skies before it started raining. And it rained.

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A little rain never hurt anybody…but just think of the poor bellhop that had to drag our luggage through this torrent to the lobby.

Rain means no scuba diving, no surfing, basically no water sports. Rain means that you probably don’t want to go the beach. Rain means the traffic gets worse than it already is. And this kind of rain meant no matter what umbrella you use, you’ll get soaked in a matter of seconds. And because of the humidity, anything that gets wet basically stays wet (unless you stand over it with one of those weak hotel hair dryers for about an hour). It basically sucks.

When I go back, it’s not going to be in December.

3. Bugs

When I was a little girl, about 6 or 7, I wasn’t afraid of any bugs. That summer, I visited my grandmother in Taiwan, and she was always smacking cockroaches with a slipper. And those weren’t those tiny cockroaches you’d see in places like Vancouver, those were big tropical ones. Anyways, I was left alone in the room, and I saw one. There was my chance! I grabbed a slipper and smacked.

It broke in half.

And then the head ran off. The butt followed.

Ever since then, I’ve been terrified of cockroaches, and by association, all the creepy crawlies.

It can’t be helped, all tropical climates have bugs and lots of them. Bali is no exception.

There were long black bugs with a lot of legs in the shower (not centipedes, thank god). There were large ants that crawled over any leftover food. And most of all, there were mosquitoes.

I have a mosquito allergy, which means when I get bitten, the bite swells to the size of an egg, followed by hives and sometimes fever. I was bitten twice in Phuket, and over 20 times in Bali. I used mosquito repellent, but any spots I missed (like my feet) would get bitten multiple times throughout the day.

If you go to Bali, get a big bottle of mosquito repellent (I recommend Boots Natural Insect Repellent), After Bite, and if you’re the sensitive type (meaning allergic to everything), anti-histamines or OTC allergy meds like Claritin or Reactine.

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My lifesavers!

4. Transportation

Getting around is always a problem when you’re traveling. All taxi drivers know that you’re from abroad (unless you speak the local language), and don’t know where you’re going. Unfortunately, most of them take advantage of that fact and either a) drive around in circles running up the meter, or b) refuse to turn on the meter and instead ask for a fixed, inflated price.

In Bali, we were lucky enough to have a driver that worked our friend Zulfan’s aunt, which saved us a lot of negotiation and hassle. We didn’t have him everyday though, and when left to our own devices, taxi drivers often asked outrageous prices (relatively). Once when we were trying to leave the Galleria in the rain, a taxi driver asked us for 250,000 Rp ($21) to get back to our hotel, when normally it would be under 100,000 Rp. It’s not about the money, it’s that bad feeling you get when people try to take you for a ride.

The language barrier can also cause problems. When my friend tried to take a taxi to meet up with us about 2km away, she thought they’d agreed on using the meter. The driver thought differently. When it came time to pay, the driver asked for 50,000 Rp, and she refused. She pointed to the sign that said “minimum 25,000 Rp” and said that since he didn’t use the meter like they agreed, she would only pay the minimum. He got angry, started yelling in Indonesian or Balinese and it took intervention by another local before he huffily took the 25,000 Rp. Not a pleasant experience for anyone.

Now I’m not saying they’re bad people, everyone’s just trying to earn a living. But it’s not a good feeling not knowing who you can trust. The person smiling at you could just be trying to get you someplace to spend money on overpriced good for a commission. A recommendation could have a hidden agenda. My advice is to do your homework, know what you want to do and how much you want to spend. Then politely decline your driver’s suggestion to take you “somewhere nice”.

Whenever you can, take a Bluebird taxi. They’re the most reputable taxi company in Bali, and apparently government-run. Bluebird taxis always use the meter, so you don’t have to worry about negotiating the price. The only thing is, it’s pretty difficult to find one outside of major hotels and malls, and sometimes you have no choice but to take one of the other ones.

Almost all the taxis in Bali are blue, and some even have a bird symbol on their taxi hats meant to confuse tourists. However, they don’t try to copy the Bluebird exactly (presumably because it’s government-run), and it’s fairly easy to spot an imitation if you know what to look for.

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All Bluebird Taxis have a flying bird on its hat, and says “TAKSI”, never “TAXI”. It also always have “Blue Bird Group” on the windshield. None of the imitations would ever have that.

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Same color, similar hat, but not a Bluebird.

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No “Blue Bird Group” on the windshield.

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Also not a Bluebird!

There are a lot of drivers with private cars that you can hire for the day, at an agreed upon price. Generally you can get a driver for about 500,000 Rp – 750,000 Rp for about 8 hours, plus whatever tips you think he deserves. A good driver can make all the difference, although I would quickly Google his recommendations before taking them. The mobile network in Bali is spotty though, so sometimes you just have to decide if you can trust him.

5. The money

Ok, I’m being a little picky, but the Indonesian Rupiah makes it difficult for me to calculate whether or not something is expensive. I agonized whether to leave the maid 20,000 Rp ($1.69) or 30,000 Rp ($2.54) for 5 minutes before I realized it was the difference of $0.85.

The most you can pull out of an ATM at one time is 1.5 million Rp ($127), which can stretch quite far in Bali, but depends on whether or not you’re going to restaurants and spas catering to tourists. Because the largest denomination is 100,000 Rp ($8.47), that means at any given time, you’re carrying a huge wad of bills around. A lot of ATMs also only give out 50,000 Rp bills, which means in order to take out 1.5 million, you’d be carrying around 30 bills. Another problem is that many smaller stores or stalls think of 100,000 Rp bills , or even 50,000 Rp bills as “big bill”, and difficult to break.

Here I’d like to recommend that you exchange USD or Euros or pounds for Rupiahs in Indonesia. You’d get much better rates than you’d get back home, not to mention the fact that the Indonesian Rupiah isn’t widely traded and is probably difficult to find. Be sure to compare several exchange booths, as rates can vary widely in just a few blocks. Also remember to ask if they charge commission, and get smaller bills if you can.

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1.5 million Rp in 50,000 denominations. Tim obviously doesn’t hate being baller…

Make no mistake, I loved Bali. This post is just me hoping that when you visit, you’ll be able to avoid all the bad parts and just enjoy the fabulousness that is Bali. I don’t regret going, and neither will you.

 

 

5 things I loved about Bali

1. Beautiful sunsets by the water

I never felt like you have to sunbathe or go into the ocean to enjoy the beach. When I go to the beach, I just want to enjoy the ocean breeze in my hair and the sun on my face, my toes digging into the sand. If the sun is setting over the waves, all the better.

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Rabbit sponge enjoying the sunset on Kuta Beach with throngs of beachgoers.

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No filters, just nature.

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Toes in soft sand with the sun on my face. Now this is vacation!

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The sunset lasts only about 20 minutes, but each minute is different.

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Almost everyone left the beach after the sunset. I think they missed out.

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We got to Tanah Lot just in time for the sunset.

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There’s very little in this world that is more beautiful than the contrast of the blues of the ocean and the blues in the sky.

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Tanah Lot at sunset.

2. Balinese Culture

I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure which parts of my experience are Indonesian, and which parts are Balinese, but I loved it. I liked the intricate wood carvings, each hand carved and unique, sold at Batik Keris and the little stalls at the market. I liked learning a few words of bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language); not to brag, but I know more than 10 whole words in Indonesian now. I’m also in love with the sarong; I love the way it swished and highlights a woman’s hips. They also look great on men, as my boyfriend will demonstrate (heehee).

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At first I thought the checkered skirts were a fashion statement, but it’s just a traditional pattern.

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Checkered sarong as modeled by Zulfan.

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Tim insists that beer is culture. Indonesian beer, like most Asian beers, are meant to drink with a meal, and so are milder and (according to Tim) has less personality.

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Balinese wood carvings

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Kite flying at Kuta Beach.

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I love seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Even Starbucks oozes culture.

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Traditional Balinese dance about how a man conquers his inner demons. Although how traditional, I’m not really sure… I was very surprised when they used a boar penis (fake) to sing “Happy Birthday” in English…

We stayed at the Novotel Benoa in Tanjung Benoa near Nusa Dua, and they hosted a New Year’s dinner complete with traditional Balinese dances, including a very impressive fire dance (although I was a bit concerned that part of it was done in a large wooden hut…). We got to ring in the New Year’s on the beach, in the rain, literally a few steps away from the fireworks. Yeah, safety’s not a big concern here.

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Why oh why is that guy taking a picture of us taking a picture?

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Love that I’m the same color as that cat!

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Everything about the New Year’s dinner was designed to showcase Balinese culture. Shame it didn’t taste so good…

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Firedancing on the beach! Unlike the feeble performances I’ve seen elsewhere, the dancers were very skilled.

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Watching the fireworks on the beach, under an umbrella. Definitely a different countdown experience.

3. Novotel Benoa

They didn’t pay me or anything (really!), but I really have to give them kudos. The minute we got to the hotel, we immediately felt like we were immersed in a different culture, while at the same time enjoying all the conveniences of a modern hotel.

2013-12-31 09.25.57Our beach cabana! Completely worth the extra money to be so close to the beach!

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The interior is pretty modern, with Balinese details. Watch out for bugs in the shower though…

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An outdoor tub sounds like a good idea, but imagine this. You’ve filled the tub with hot water, the air around your head swarming with mosquitoes…

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Swimming pool area. Really nice but always filled with kids.

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Everything about this hotel reminds us that we’re in Bali!

The Novotel Benoa is located right at the beach, and literally a minute away from where our bungalow was. Most of the water is roped off for a variety of water sports, where you can sign up for at a stand on the beach. This is separate from the hotel, and prices are definitely negotiable (up to 50% off the listed prices). I opted for the donut cube (as there was a close call with a boat the last time I was on a jet ski), where a speedboat pulls a square donut and does circles in the water while we hold on for dear life. Fun! They also have something called a flying fish, where you get tied onto a large kite-like thing, and trails the speedboat pulling it. I wanted to try that, but unfortunately after that first few days of sun, it started pouring, washing out any chance of water sports.

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Paris on a jet ski, $25 for 15 minutes. With an instructor of course!

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Sunny day at the beach!

The hotel staff really went out of their way to add a personal touch to the hotel experience. They were eager to give us suggestions for activities, and helped us contact reputable agencies. My only qualm is the slowness of their kitchens; it takes about an hour to get room service.

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We found this note and two plumeria (frangipani) blossoms on our bed after a long day out.

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Our new year’s gift from the hotel, a traditional Balinese thumb piano.

4. Ubud

I really regret only planning a day in Ubud. It’s such a beautiful place, all that green and nature. It’s much more relaxed than Kuta, where everything is basically built to cater to western toursits. If I go to Bali again, I’m spending the entire time in Ubud.

We were lucky enough to get a beautiful villa at the Alam Ubud Culture VIllas, and at a reasonable price too! It’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice paddies. There’s only one road going up the mountain for cars going in both directions…definitely do not attempt to drive up yourself!

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Lesson learned from Bali; if they provide mosquito nets, use it! There were fireflies and all sorts of bugs flying around at night.

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Oh to wake up everyday to this!

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My friend thought it would be nice to get on those beds for a nap and found they were covered with little bugs.

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I mentioned we were on a mountain right? We had to climb up and down hills to get to the pool and restaurant.

2014-01-02 15.49.22-1 Infinity pools are awesome!

The “city” area of Ubud is basically a couple streets of small specialty shops, cafes, and foot massage places. Here, you will see some people who are obviously not local, but have fallen in love with this place and settled down. Because of them, you can get authentic Italian gelato and amazing Indonesian/Western fusion restaurants right there in Ubud.

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Gelato secrets, one of the best gelato experiences I’ve had in a while! Keep in mind that I was in Europe a few months ago. They have normal flavors such as pistachio and vanilla, Asian flairs like green tea, and exotic ones like chocolate chili and salted caramel.

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Amazing restaurant recommended by both Chinese travel sites and Lonely Planet. Perfect example of Indonesion cuisine served Western-style.

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Just thinking about their miso butterfish makes my mouth water…what is butterfish btw?

5. Massages!

Despite a horrible experience at Anika Spa (more on that later), I still ended up with a great feel for Balinese massage at the Home Spa.

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Definitely a must-visit if you’re staying near Nusa Dua!

First of all, massages are cheap in Bali. You can easily get a foot massage for less than $5 and a full-body massage for $10. The Home Spa is a little more expensive than some of those little places, but worth every penny.

We decided to try the Four-Hand massage, which is exactly like it sounds; four hands, two masseuses massaging at the same time. This massage is insanely expensive in other parts of the world. For example, in Abu Dhabi, a one-hour four hand massage goes for about $250 at a 5-star hotel, and even in Thailand it was over $100. At the Home Spa, it was 250,000 Rp ($21) for one hour. And let’s not forget this is considered a more expensive spa!

The experience was surreal. At first I was worried that two people massaging at once would be more distracting than soothing, but the masseuses were incredibly in sync, working both sides of the body in perfect tandem. They used long strokes, soothing but at the same time applying enough pressure to work out any knots. I have to admit, I don’t remember much after the first 10 minutes, as I was lulled into a deep, relaxing sleep. Definitely try this massage if you go to Bali, you won’t get a deal like this anywhere else!

That’s it for now, more on Bali coming soon!

Christmas in Paradise

 

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So I’m going to be spending Christmas in Phuket and New Year’s in Bali, which means another two weeks away from WordPress. On the plus side, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of interesting anecdotes to tell and pictures to show when I get back (and I’ll get going on the China stuff too!). Merry Christmas everyone, and may the next year be your best!