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

DC January 2013

 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 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 Phuket: Beaches, Tigers and Simon’s Caberet

So our trip started off with a pretty unpleasant flight from Abu Dhabi to Columbo to Bangkok to Phuket. The first night we pretty much spent at the hotel, The Senses Resort, which fortunately was gorgeous, clean and looked exactly like the pictures on its website. The location was a little odd; on top of a hill right in the middle of what looked like a row of makeshift houses, but fairly close to Patong beach (walkable).

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Taken of the standard room at The Senses Resort (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297930-d3586803-Reviews-The_Senses_Resort-Patong_Kathu_Phuket.html). Don’t bother getting the “ocean view”, that sliver of ocean doesn’t justify the extra $20/night.

After a great lunch at the Love Lounge (yes, that’s the name of the restaurant at our hotel) of soft-shell crab and fried ice cream, we headed down to Patong Beach.

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View at lunch from the Love Lounge.

Patong beach is beautiful to be sure, especially as it was a wonderfully sunny day. The waters were blue and the sand oh-so-soft. But as all the guidebooks pointed out, the winter holidays is a bit of a zoo in Phuket, with Europeans and Americans descending into the area looking for some sun. The beach was pretty crowded, with nary a place to lay down a blanket. Touts selling everything from beach towels to foot massages were everywhere, as were the agents trying to get beachgoers to go parasailing or jetskiing at what were probably ridiculously inflated prices ($100 for two people to go parasailing for 10 minutes). We went down to Patong beach exactly once our entire trip and didn’t feel the need to go again. Beaches are for relaxing, and it just wasn’t.

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Panoramic view taken at Patong Beach after the crowds had thinned.

After a nice walk on the beach, we decided to get one of those famous Thai foot massages. Having gotten a great one in Prague, we were really looking forward to it. After checking out several places, we found Limone Massage & Spa (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297930-d3586803-Reviews-The_Senses_Resort-Patong_Kathu_Phuket.html), which had great reviews on tripadvisor, and looked relatively clean.

I honestly don’t know why they got such great reviews. Sure it was cheap (700 baht, or $21, for a 1 hour foot massage and a 1 hour oil massage) The foot massage was mediocre; the ladies seemed more interested in talking about us in Thai then they were with what they were doing to our feet. They basically just rubbed oil up and down our legs and feet, with no technique whatsoever. When we moved on to the oil massage, my masseuse gave me a head massage without washing the oil on her hands first. The result? I had clumpy oily hair for the next three days, because no matter how many times I washed my hair, the oil simply would not come out. I finally gave up and went to a hair salon at Jungceylon Mall, and it took them seven tries to get all the oil out. Not a fun experience.

The foot massage I got on the lower floor of the Jungceylon Mall was much better. The one we chose started with an L (sorry, I can’t remember what the name was), the masseuses were quiet and focused, and it was a true Thai foot massage involving stretching and putting pressure on pressure points.

Now comes the more controversial part of our trip. We went and saw a “ladyboy” show, petted tigers and rode elephants. While there are some people who question the ethics and morality of these attractions, I just see people trying to make a living. The transvestites need these shows to supplement their income, the tigers were lively and seem to be treated no worse than a tiger at the zoo, and the elephant got lots of treats from tourists eager to feed them bananas. i enjoyed the experience and that’s that.

We went to a travel agency on Patong Beach and arranged to see Simon’s Caberet, elephant rides, and a day trip to Ko Phi Phi at a little over $100 per person. Rates listed on posters or pamphlets are definitely not fixed, and a little negotiating means at least a 20-40% discount on the listed price.

Our travel agent was a very friendly transvestite who also helped to arrange a relatively cheap private car ride to TIger Kingdom (400baht, or $12). There’s some sort of taxi mafia in the Patong area (and possibly extends to the rest of Phuket) where all the drivers agree not to use meters, and charge inflated fixed prices to tourists looking for transportation. We were once quoted 200 baht ($6) for a 1.2 km ride, and when we said we’d just walk, they told us that it wasn’t walkable (of course there was no explanation as to why it wasn’t walkable). This is why it’s definitely worth it to spend $10 at the Bangkok Airport to get a travel sim card, which is sold at multiple kiosks and includes data and a little call time. I got AIS and it worked in Bangkok and Phuket with no problems at all. A little Google (and Google Maps!) goes a long way when people are trying to pull a fast one on you.

Anyways, this is how Tiger Kingdom works. They divide their tigers by size (smallest, small, large, largest), with the smallest (and cutest) tigers being the most expensive, at 1000 baht ($30) for 10 minutes. During these 10 minutes, the trainers help position the tigers so that you can pet and take pictures with it. For an additional 500 baht ($15), the trainers also take pictures for you if you’re alone or want pictures with your loved ones. Unfortunately they didn’t have the super cute baby tigers like they do at Chiang Mai, but ours were cute all the same.

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Taken at Tiger Kingdom. Me and a tiger cub getting cozy!

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Hear me roar!

 

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A pile of tiger cubs!

They’re pretty serious about safety, which is good considering they’re letting people into cages with full-grown tigers (not for me, no thanks, don’t want to be that one person who gets mauled by a tiger). You’re not allowed to bring anything in that might be mistaken as a toy by the tiger, and you must wash your hands before entering the cage. The tigers like to petted with a firm touch; a soft one might tickle and irritate the tiger. Approach the tiger from the back and not the front, or they may interpret your advances as an invitation to play. Those tiger cubs may not be full-grown yet, but they have powerful claws and teeth and are the size of large dogs. You definitely don’t want to mess around with them.

The cubs looked clean and they weren’t afraid of their trainers at all, which I’m taking as a good sign they’re being treated well. If they were using force to train the cubs, they would’ve been terrified of them. As it was, the trainers had a difficult time getting the cubs to pose for pictures, and often had to drag them by the tail into position. Usually within seconds they’d run off and start brawling with one of their friends, which indicates to me that they’re not drugged. I’m sure that people who have a problem with keeping animals in zoos would have a problem with this establishment, but it didn’t offend me at all.

The Simon Caberet though, did leave me with a sinking feeling in my stomach. The show itself was very entertaining, with scenes depicting cultures around the world (although not accurately), sexy dances (gangdam style!) and famous performances (Chicago). No pictures because they threatened us with a $50,000 fine for copyright infringement before the show started. No idea whether or not that could be legally enforced, but I didn’t want to risk it. The “girls” were beautiful; tall, slim, with seemingly perfectly enhanced breasts and feminine, delicate features. I seriously wondered if the show had just put women in and pretended they were men acting as women (did that make sense?)

It was after the show that I felt like I’d done something wrong. During the show I was wondering how I can get a picture with some of them; turned out I didn’t have to worry about that at all. When we left the theater they were all lined up in a row, dressed up in elaborate costumes, beckoning at the tourists to come take a picture with them for tips. Most just hung around on the side, taking pictures of them as a group. Some took pictures with them and left a 20 baht ($0.60) tip, despite the sign stating a 50 baht minimum. Some left without tipping at all. Worst of all, the ones who aren’t beautiful, who didn’t quite make that transformation into a beautiful, were left desperately waving to onlookers. I really wished I didn’t use all my cash to take a picture with the one I thought was prettiest, I should’ve taken it with one who needed it more.

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The prettiest one at the show. There was a line to take pictures with her.

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Others weren’t so lucky.

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I originally wanted to take a picture with the one in the blue angel wings. What happened was, the one in the Native American costume was her friend and came into the picture hoping I’d tip her too, which of course I did. The whole thing just made me sad.

The sex industry in Phuket is thriving, no doubt about it. Ping Pong Shows are ubiquitous, touted by defeated looking girls. Everywhere you go, young Thai women are on the arms of much older, much less attractive Caucasian men. I saw tired, scantily dressed women leaving our hotel, men leering and catcalling as she left.

My first time in Thailand, I was visiting Patpong Night Market when this Arabic man asked me for my price. I told him to f*** off and leave me alone. Apparently he got offended, because he chased me down the street, yelling at me in Arabic. He didn’t back off until another tourist stopped him. And who knows if he would have if I wasn’t screaming at him to go away in English?

I think if I go to Thailand again, I won’t be going to another one of those shows.

 

 

Hawaii – No filters necessary!

You know how sometimes you look at professional pictures of Hawaii, the blues of the ocean are so vivid and clear, you just know they have to come from a filter. Here’s proving you wrong:

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Taken in Waikiki, Oahu in August 2013. No filters, no fancy camera, Hawaii is really that beautiful.

I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about Hawaii. It’s one of those places that so many people go on about, that I was sure it was all hype. I grew up on the west coast and basically had access to beaches all my life. How different could it be?

Well, when I first got to the house we rented in Kailua, I wasn’t very impressed. Yes, there was a lot of green, the sky is blue, but then again so is Vancouver. It was humid, and there was a giant dead cockroach in one of the bedrooms (major drawback of beautiful tropical places, the cockroaches are HUGE!).

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$10,000 for a week. Includes 5 bedrooms, fully functional kitchen, but most importantly, private beach access!

Renting a house like this is actually more expensive than spending a week in a hotel (we had 10 people), but it’s a good option for families and people who like to make their own food. And then of course, this location provided access to a part of the beach that’s mostly secluded and devoid of tourists. And it was when I first laid eyes on that beach that I was sold; Hawaii is every bit as great as people say it is.

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Taken at Kailua beach. Body boarding is awesome for people not balanced enough to surf…people like me, for example.

The temperature is great year-round in Hawaii. It does rain quite frequently, but usually ends quickly, scattering rainbows throughout the island. The weather can vary drastically from place to place; one time it was raining on us, while a few feet ahead the rain had stopped.

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Taken at Pali Lookout. Hold on to your baby, the wind is really strong!

The people in Hawaii are really really nice. The guard at the Social Security building even apologized for the inconvenience of their security check! How often do you see that happen? (Why was I at the Social Security building while I’m on vacation? You don’t want to know.) Every single person I’ve come across in Hawaii have been all smiles, polite and helpful, from Walmart to restaurants to random people on the street. I guess there isn’t anything to be unhappy about when you live in Hawaii!

Hawaii is called “little Japan”, but I was still a little surprised by how many people speak Japanese. There are tons of great (albeit pricy) Japanese restaurants, although you’d have a hard time trying to find a good Chinese one. Seriously, there is a serious shortage of good Chinese restaurants outside of China.

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Taken at Banzai Restaurant on the North Shore. Volcano roll, anyone?

If you go to Oahu, you have to try Bubbie’s mochi ice cream. Mochi is a Japanese dessert made of glutinous rice, usually with something sweet wrapped inside. In this case, it’s ice cream! They have a variety of exotic flavors including mocha, green tea, passionfruit, mint chocolate, and my favorite, red bean! And if you look closely at the labels on some of the desserts, you’ll notice the names are a little odd…

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Taken at Bubbies. I still don’t know what knock me up on the blower means….

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The one on the right is called multiple orgasm…that good, huh?

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Good advice!

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When will I have one of these again? T^T

I’ll admit it, I’m a shopper. Which is why I got really excited when I found out that Hawaii has a measly 4% sales tax! (Compare that to 12% in Vancouver and 8.87% in Washington State). This is a really good deal when you consider that you’re paying American prices; although there are plenty of countries out there that are tax-free, for many goods (clothes, cosmetics, food) it’s still more expensive than the US price plus American taxes. In Dubai, although they do not charge a sales tax, goods are marked up either because the market is wealthier, shipping costs or a delayed release of product by official sources. A gold iPhone 5s for example, is now 6300 dhs ($1715) on the gray market, simply because it isn’t available yet. Hong Kong is known is a shopper’s paradise, but I’ve found that American brands (such as Coach, Clinique and Nike) are still sold at higher price then back in the states. The iPhone 5s is actually a bit cheaper than the US, but as with any product popular in mainland China, official stores are sold out pretty quickly, leaving buyers to scour the gray market for them at higher prices.

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Taken at Ala Moana, Oahu’s open-air mall. How cool is that?

For our last day in Hawaii, my boyfriend and I wanted some alone time and got a room at the Aqua Lotus Honolulu (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g60982-d90108-Reviews-Lotus_Honolulu-Honolulu_Oahu_Hawaii.html). It’s in a great location on Waikiki, close to the beach and Diamond Head. Two thumbs up for the great view!

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Taken at Aqua Lotus Honolulu. Rabbit sponge’s debut!

Waikiki is, admittedly, a bit of a tourist trap. Prices are inflated and you can often get better quality for less in terms of food. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a trip tho! In fact, I’d go just for the penguins.

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That’s right, penguins! Taken at the Waikiki Hilton.

There are also a number of cool shops near the Waikiki Hilton, including Honolua Surf Co., which offers reasonably priced swimwear, surfwear, t-shirts and everything beach-related at reasonable prices (http://www.honoluasurf.com/).

Before I finish off this post, I have to share my new found love of Kona coffee. We went to visit the Old Sugar Mill on the North Shore for a brief tour. Our guide gave each of us a raw coffee bean straight from the tree to try (no chewing, just tasting), and showed us what they looked like in their pods. Each pod usually has three beans, but occasionally has only two. The ones that came from pod of two are called peaberries, and has a stronger flavor than beans from a three-bean pod. Got myself some of that, and I have to say, it’s AMAZING. Cool place to go if you want to get some Hawaiian goodies. If not, you can still get authentic Kona coffee for $10/pound at Longs drugs (compare that to $30-50/pound on the mainland!). My only regret now is that I didn’t buy more…

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Besides coffee, The Old Sugar Mill also has Hawaiian grown chocolate, tea and jams.

Where’s Pearl Harbor? Where’s Diamond Head? Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do any of that…guess that means I’ll have to go back!