Day Trip to Bahrain

So I had to make a day trip to Bahrain, a tiny Middle Eastern country one-hour away from the UAE. It’s known as the Vegas of the Middle East (although much much more conservative), and many Saudis and expats living in conservative Muslim countries visit to get away from the restrictions of their own country.

Bahrain offers Visa on Arrival for Americans (and many other nationalites); all you have to do is pay 5 dinar at customs and you get a two week visa. Before I left for Bahrain, I was advised to fill in the entry form completely, or I’d have issues at customs. If it’s your first time visiting Bahrain with your valid passport, you’ll have to wait awhile while they do a check; I was assured that the next time I visited I’d go straight through.

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Mandatory pre-travel airport selfie!

The Bahrain dinar is tied to the American dollar, at 1 dinar to 2.65 dollars.  I’m much more used to money that’s smaller than the American dollar, and as a result, struggled with realizing that almost everything in Bahrain is expensive.

By the way, the Bahrain International Airport is really boring, with few shops and places to eat. If you happen to be heading to a gate downstairs, just know that you’re not getting back up.

Upon exiting customs was to get some cash at the ATM, as I was planning to take taxis and visit the souk. I had an inkling that this was a place where people spend big money when I was greeted with the options of withdrawing 50-500 dinars. Five hundred dinars is $1326! I felt very poor indeed when I picked “other amount” and withdrew 40 dinars.

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Half Bahrain dinar bill, worth $1.33

First thing I noticed after leaving the airport was that the taxi drivers appeared to be local, which never happens in the UAE. All taxi drivers in the UAE are from neighboring countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India; you almost never see the Emiratis working customer service. I assume Bahrain’s taxi drivers are local because it’s good money; it was about $30 to travel from the airport to the city center, and it was a short trip. There’s a 1 BD charge for trips leaving and going to the airport, and they also charge you 1 BD for a “waiting taxi”; when I was leaving the mall to get back to the airport, all the available taxis were waiting in the parking lot rather than at the entrance of the mall in order to levy this extra fee. Sneaky!

Originally I’d planned to spend some time at the souk (Arabic for market), but I’d forgotten that many stores close for a few hours around noon. It’s like an afternoon siesta where the locals go take a nap and rest while the sun is at its hottest. So I wandered around for a bit, looking at the shop windows and wondering whether I should wait an hour for it to open.

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I ended up leaving because I was getting stared at and men were whispering sexual innuendos as I passed. Traveling alone as a non-Muslim woman in the Middle East, it’s just something you have to get used to. A lot of men in the area equate not being covered from head to toe to as a sign that you’re loose, or worse, a prostitute. On the plus side, no one ever tries to touch me.

I decided to go to a nearby mall to grab some coffee and a bite to eat. I admired the architecture along the way; it’s so strange to think that all this is in the middle of a lot of sand.

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Beautiful view of the coast.

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I’ve always wondered how they keep things so green.

The Seef Mall is just like any other mall I’ve seen in the Middle East, with lots of coffee shops and kid-friendly facilities. What’s surprised me were the prices; something were very cheap ($1 vitamins) and some were outrageously expensive. I walked into a gourmet popsicle shop, and got a tiramisu pop dipped in chocolate (it’s as good as it sounds). I didn’t see any prices, but I thought, how expensive can a popsicle be? it was $6. SIX DOLLARS FOR A POPSICLE!

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Starbucks is fancy here.

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Ridiculously expensive popsicle shop. Have to say, it was gooooood. If it weren’t $6 apiece, I’d probably have 4.

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I’m not sure who decided that giant animal cars for children are a great idea in the confined spaces of a mall. I almost got run over…twice!

Before I finish off this post, I have to recommend this awesome organic burger place, Elevation Burger. The beef patty was juicy and the fries were made from olive oil. Almost as good as Shake Shack but probably a lot healthier. On a side note, a Saudi Arabian family of about 10 people came in, and bought about $270 worth of burgers and fries. Just saying, I’ve never seen so much money spent on fast food!

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Just looking at it makes me hungry…

That’s it for Bahrain! Next time I hope to see the Tree of Life and maybe the souk when it’s open. Let me know if you know any good places!

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The Dubai Mall

Yup, I’m gonna do an entire post on a mall! And what a mall it is; the Dubai Mall is currently the biggest mall in the world, with 1200 shops and still expanding! It’s the mall to end all malls, selling everything from solid gold iPhones to sleepy stuffed camels to Japanese linens. Almost everytime I go to Dubai I end up here, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin.

As part of our Valentine’s Day celebrations, we made our way up to Dubai to have a good meal and do some shopping. Just a heads up, some of the pictures are from different trips, so don’t be surprised if I’m wearing different outfits (no, I’m not one of those people who bring different outfits for pictures).

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Did I mention that the Dubai Mall is connected to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world?

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There’s no shortage of froufrou things at the Dubai Mall!

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Always check out the cars parked in front…they’re a sight in themselves!

Before we get to eating and shopping though, some ground rules:

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Keep your hands and lips to yourself!

A lot of people ignore the “respectful clothing” rule, and you’ll see short shorts and cleavage everywhere. Keep in mind that a lot of the locals to equate revealing clothing with whores (for women), so if you want to avoid uncomfortable comments and stares, it’s still best to keep to the conservative side.

ABSOLUTELY NO KISSING IALLOWED! Dubai is much more liberal than the rest of the emirates, but this is still an big no-no. As in you could be jailed for doing it. If you’re not married, refrain from holding hands, as a well-placed complaint could get you in trouble. Men should be careful to avoid physical contact with local women; simple gestures that we use to express friendliness could be interpreted very differently here.

We got to Dubai around 1pm, and we were famished. There are so many food options in the mall, ranging from the usual range of fast foods to five star restaurants. We settled on California Pizza Kitchen, as we had a great meal there in Hawaii.

It was very, very disappointing. The thing about eating out here is that familiar brands often end up very different than back home, and not in a good way. Nothing we ordered tasted good, never mind resembling the great dishes at the other CPK’s I’ve been to.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in North America. Not my picture, but I can attest that it does look like that.

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CPK Meat Craver pizza in Dubai. Ugh.Just look at all that congealed cheese and burnt meatballs!

Thankfully our dinner was much better, as we picked an old favorite: Shake Shack. For those of you who know Shake Shack, it started out in New York and blew up there. They make the most amazing (and greasy) cheeseburgers, as well as amazing custards and milkshakes. If you ever come across one of these, definitely stop by!

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Probably the fanciest Shake Shack in the world.

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Red Velvet Custard…just looking at this picture makes me drool.

The Dubai Mall is also home to another New York cult favorite, Magnolia Bakery. I stopped going to the one at the Dubai Mall because one opened up in Abu Dhabi, but anyone’s who’s not had one should stop by Bloomingdale’s for a taste. The cupcakes are to die for, with fluffy sugary icing that’s somehow not too sweet, and the banana pudding is thick and creamy without being too rich. Some people say the one in New York is better, but I can’t see how!

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Vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing. It really is a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds!

Another good place to eat is the Social House, which is a Western and Eastern cusine fusion. There’s a good variety of food and drinks (non-alcoholic of course), and a great view of the Dubai fountain, the largest in the world. The fountain turns on every half hour; it really is quite a spectacular show, much better than the one in Vegas.

Photo Apr 27, 1 45 59 PM Photo Apr 27, 2 29 12 PMThe Hainanese chicken at the Social House is pretty close to the quality in China.

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The Dubai Fountain is really something else.Be prepared to fight with all the tourists around you if you want to film it though!

The Burj Khalifa is right next to the Dubai Fountain, but it’s only accessible to tourists from the lower ground floor of the Dubai Mall. You should make an appointment to visit the Burj Khalifa well in advance of your trip, as it’s the difference between 125 AED ($34) and 400 AED ($109) for immediate entry (click here for more information). It’s worth it if you have a great camera and want to get some pictures of Dubai. I’m personally a sucker for panoramic city views, and I’m planning to go up there in April to check out the sunrise.

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The tallest building in the world, and the best place to get a full view of Dubai!

If you have children, there’s also tons of things for them to do. The UAE is children-friendly in general, with a great focus on family and kids. The Dubai Mall has a huge indoor aquarium, one of the world’s largest suspended ones (yet another record broken), offering cage snorkeling, glass bottom boats, and other interactive activities.

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I really need a better camera to capture the aquarium’s beauty. This picture doesn’t do it justice.

Right across from the aquarium is the Cheesecake Factory, and a huge candy store guaranteed to make any kid (and me) scream. Everything in the store is over the top: giant swirly lollipops, the world’s largest chocolate bar and wall to wall to wall of different colored m&ms.

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Just looking at it will give you a sugar rush…

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There’s the Asian eyes again…

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The Waterfall is yet another extravagant water feature in the Dubai Mall, expanding all four floors of the mall and is known for it’s beauty. It was designed to be a meeting point for visitors, and has a variety of coffee shops surrounding it.

Now on to my favorite part, shopping! We visited the Dubai Mall at the end of the Spring Festival in China, and there were still many promotions and advertisements geared towards Chinese tourists. It’s a sign of how much their revenue depends on Chinese visitors, that every single store accepts UnionPay (the Chinese version of Visa and Mastercard), and all high-end brands have at least one sales assistant who speaks Chinese.

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A sign that Chinese tourists are taking over the world…

If you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home, the Dubai Mall even has a souk, a traditional Arabic market. It’s definitely not the best place for deals and heavy bargaining, but it has everything you’ll find in a souk elsewhere.

 

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The Souk

The Dubai Mall is also home to one of my favorite bookstores, Kinokuniya. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, but it doesn’t diminish my love for actual paper. It’s not that easy to find a good selection of books in the UAE, and Kinokuniya is one of the few bookstores that sell more books than stationary. Other than English books, they also have books in a variety of languages.

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There are Kinokuniyas all over the world, but this is the biggest I’ve seen.

For all the fashionistas and beauty junkies out there, this place is heaven. There’s a shoe garden of stores devoted to shoes, a gigantic Sephora, hard to find brands from all over the world. If only I had the money…

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The Shoe Garden…and a giant flower chair I found in the middle of it!

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Not as big as the one in New York, but you’ll definitely find some products unique to the Middle East!

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Repetto is pretty hard to find in the US. If only I had a spare $300 to spend on a pair of ballet flats…

 

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You can find Laduree macaroons outside of France here in Dubai!

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Souvenir from al Gallery…LMAO

That’s it for the Dubai Mall. I’ll post more on the Middle East soon, so keep coming back!

 

 

 

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 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!

Hong Kong: Get your Chinese visa…and the best food in the world!

I don’t know if I can say that I’ve really been to Hong Kong. According to my passport, I’ve been here 5 times, and all 5 times I’ve been stuck at the visa office.

My experience of Hong Kong is basically limited to a few stops on the metro, mainly Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. Wan Chai is where the visa office is, and that’s where I have to go two to three times on every trip to Hong Kong.

Everyone who’s ever had to get a Chinese visa will know that it’s a trying experience. The lines are long, they don’t always open when they say it will, and the policies always seem to be different than what’s on their website. Which is what I found out after waiting 2.5 hours…and on my birthday too!

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That’s right, a little over an hour before they stop giving numbers, and there’s still 210 people ahead of me…

There really isn’t any reliable way to know exactly what you need to obtain a Chinese visa. Sometimes you need proof of accomodation (hotel) and a return flight to get a tourist visa, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need proof of relation if you’re visiting a relative, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes they ask for an invitation letter sometimes you don’t. At the Chinese office in Thailand, I was asked to get a health evaluation for my work visa, even though it wasn’t listed on the website. I’ve tried every single time to get a multiple entry visa because it says I can on the website, and it’s never worked before, but I got it this time. You just never really know what will happen, and the infuriating thing is, you just have to deal with it.

In general, Mondays and Tuesdays aren’t a great time to go for a visa. If you are planning to go on those days, you should go half an hour to an hour before opening, or the line will be heinously long (see above picture). They won’t give you a number unless you have a completed form; they pass out applications while you’re waiting in line. I wouldn’t recommend downloading the forms from the website, because they’re often outdated;I think there’s only been once or twice where the form I downloaded was accepted. You should have the information ready (in general, home address, work address, address in China), as well as a passport picture. If you’re visiting an individual, you’ll need an invitation letter from that person, as well as a copy of their Chinese ID or passport. A foreigner with a residence visa in China is allowed to issue invitations. Oh and disregard the “Applicants are advised to apply his/her Chinese visa from the Embassy or Consulate-General of Peoples’ Republic of China in the country where he/she resides or works permanently” notice on their website; they do allow people who don’t reside in Hong Kong to get a visa.

*Disclaimer, all this information is up to date as of November 12, 2013. I can’t guarantee it’s accurate in the future…

Hong Kong is a mix of the old and new; you’ll see evidence of traditional Chinese culture mixed with all the amenities of the modern world. You’ll see the bright white Apple store and Louis Vuitton on one street, and herbs and street vendors on the next. There old hostels and glamorous five-star hotels. You can have wonton noodles for $3 at a local cha chaan tang (tea cafe), or crab and winter melon soup at a 2-star Michelin restaurant. There’s something for everyone!

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Taken in Wanchai. Some women doing Taichi under an office building!

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Taken on one of the many skybridges in Hong Kong.

The one bright side of my terrible visa ordeal was that I found this great restaurant, Yin Yeung, in Wan Chai. Usually they don’t take walk-ins (they require a reservation 5 days in advance), but I told him it was my birthday (it really was!). I’m really glad they let me in, because it’s one of the best Cantonese food I’ve ever had! You don’t order anything, they have a set tasting menu. I spent HK$200 on this meal, but mine was a special order and not their full-course meal.

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Taken at Yin Yang in Wanchai. Make a reservation before going!

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Organic vegetable soup. All the vegetables used at this restaurant are grown in a local organic farm.

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Organic vegetable with shrimp sauce. No idea how they make a simple stirfry vegetable dish so good!

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Claypot rice with Wagyu beef and music egg. Not sure what a music egg that is but it’s good! I personally don’t like to eat it with soy sauce, I find it covers up a lot of the natural taste of the beef and rice.

There’s a dessert place at Causeway Bay that I always go to, because they make the best Hong Kong-style desserts (imo of course). It used to be located under the Holiday Inn Express (near Time Square), but now they’ve moved one street down to Yiu Wa St. If you go later in the night, you’ll have to wait in line if you want to sit down, although it’s mostly empty during mealtimes.

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Taken of  Cong Sao Star Dessert. The long lines of locals prove me right!

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My mango milk custard dessert! Got takeout to avoid the line…make sure you eat it quickly though, it’s best eaten cold.

On the same street is an interesting coffee shop called Coffee Academics, offering a huge variety of coffees, prepared they way they would in Europe. Unfortuanately, the service was a little lacking, and the salad I ordered was substituted for another one without my consent. They also didn’t have a lot of the things they have listed on the menu, which was disappointing. However, the manuka honey latte I ordered was definitely different; coffee lovers should still give this coffee place a shot.

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Taken at Coffee Academics.

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Mauka honey latte! I’m a sucker for coffee art…

I’d heard that the famous ramen shop from Osaka had opened up its first overseas branch in Hong Kong, and being a ramen fan I had to check it out. I was advised not to go during mealtimes, as people have reported waiting in line for FOUR HOURS. Four hours for a bowl of ramen? No thanks.

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Taken at Ichiran at Causeway Bay.

The ramen here is served in the Japanese way, designed to expedite the eating process. Each person gets a little booth and fills out an order form that allows you to customize your ramen. Everything is optimized so that as little time as possible will be spent on waiting for service; there’s tissues on the wall, a water tap and cup in each booth and a button to call for service (usually to order food).

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They might have booths for groups, but if you come yourself or in couples, most likely you’ll get this a little one like this.

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The Japanese way is to provide instructions for everything in order to minimize confusion.

The ramen appeared quite quickly after I handed in my order form. You can choose the type of soup base you want, how soft the noodles are as well as the condiments and toppings.

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Ramen with thick soup base, medium soft noodles, spring onion, chashu and a salted soft-boiled egg.

The cost of this meal was HK$101 ($13), which is quite a lot for ramen. The ramen was exceptional, but the price and location (it’s quite hard to find) make me reluctant to go for it again.

I swear, next time I’ll go just for Hong Kong, and really get to know it better. It’s definitely a place worth returning to!

Have you eaten yet? – Food Culture in China

This is a conversation I had often when I first arrived in China:

Person: Hi, how are you?

Me: Great! What about you?

Person: Good, good. Have you eaten yet?

Me: No, not yet. Want to get something to eat?

Person: Oh no, I’ve already eaten.

Me (thinking): Well then why did you ask?

This was before I found out that “Have you eaten yet?” is basically the Chinese version of “How are you?”.

Food is very important to Chinese people. There’s a Chinese saying, “The person who’s eating is as important as an emperor” (吃饭皇帝大, chi fan huang di da), nothing is as important as eating. Almost everything revolves around food; when a baby is born, family and friends gather for a banquet to celebrate its birth. When someone is promoted, it’s customary to for that person to buy dinner for other people in the office. Business meetings are held during meals. It’s social, it’s business, it’s a way to maintain relationships.

What I don’t like about Chinese meals is the waste. Things are getting better now, but when I first went to China almost 10 years ago, nobody ever took any leftovers home. It was considered “stingy” or “greedy”, like you’re so poor that you’d want to eat leftovers. I almost always take leftovers; I found that when I did so, others almost always followed my example. Most people do think that it’s a waste, but they don’t want to lose face by being the first.

And there were a lot of leftovers. Hosts often order way too much food for the amount of people eating, because not having leftovers meant they didn’t provide enough food for their guests. Wealthy men and women would order extravagant amounts of food, often expensive items like abalone and shark fin, only to throw most of it away in order to show-off that they could afford to do so.

The custom of “hosting” was also something I had to get used to. In the US, when I went to eat with friends, I almost always paid for myself, except for special events like birthdays and celebrations. It’s interesting to note that in China, the birthday girl or boy pays for everyone’s dinner as a thank you for the birthday gifts. In China, someone almost always buys dinner for everyone, even if they didn’t know some of the people at dinner very well. I felt very uncomfortable having dinner paid for by people I don’t know well enough, but found that when I tried to pay for myself, it was often taken as an offense.

One guy asked me if he wasn’t good enough to buy me dinner. After asking my Chinese friends and coworkers, I came to the conclusion that “hosting” was a give and take situation. When someone buys you dinner, you’re “taking” and you’re eventually expected to “give” back. By refusing to let him pay, I was saying I didn’t want to owe him anything, that I didn’t want to “give” back later, and basically drawing a line between me and him. Huh?

Men almost always pay for women in China, whether or not they’re their girlfriends, or even friends. Most women wouldn’t think twice of having a male coworker or friend pay for their meals. If a man’s girlfriend brings a (female) friend to meet him, he’s expected to pick up the bill. After struggling with it for a year, I eventually gave up and just let them pay.

Another faux pas I committed was trying to pay when everyone else had accepted the offer of the person paying for dinner. Apparently by offering to pay for myself, I was making them look bad because they didn’t offer. Who knew that trying to pay for myself was so complicated?

At meals, you’ll often see two or several people fighting for the bill. It’s a sign of wealth, that you’re able to pay for others’ food. While there are some people who always “have their hands in their pockets” when the bill comes, there are others who grab for the bill. A person who never pays is considered “抠门 kou men” (stingy) or “爱占便宜 ai zhan pian yi” (likes to take advantage of others). Someone who always tries to pay whether it’s their turn or not is called a “凯子 kai zi” (someone who’s easy to take advantage of, indiscriminately generous).  Both are considered to be bad; like I said, “hosting” is a give and take kind of thing.

Most of the friends I’ve gotten really close to while in China accept splitting the bill with me now. For a while I was very anxious whenever the bill came. Should I pay? For all of us? For myself? Is it my turn or theirs? How do I make it clear that it’s just a meal and not anything more if I don’t pay? Is that offensive? I even began to avoid eating out with people. Friends eventually caught on to the source of my anxiety and offered to do it my way. They confided that sometimes they don’t even know what’s proper and what’s not, and male friends told me about the pressure they feel when they have to pay for a meal they can’t really afford. Some girls are completely willing to split the bill, but are worried they would make their boyfriends feel like “less of a man”.

I guess we’re all confused.

Qingdao, China: A different beach experience

I’m a west coast girl. I’ve lived in California and Vancouver, and been around beaches all my life. It’s weird, beaches are basically oceans and sand everywhere in the world, but each has its own distinctive personality. Hawaii is all turquoise waters and soft sand, Abu Dhabi’s beaches are man-made and perfect. Qingdao, China is no different.

Qingdao is a coastal city in the province of Shandong, and widely known as one of the best cities for living in China. It’s known for its fresh seafood, clean envionment and beaches. But this is definitely not the kind of beaches I’m used to.

I went to Qingdao with my friend Paris in May of 2011 by train. Just our luck, it basically rained the entire time. That didn’t stop us from having a great time though!

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Taken at the harbor in Qingdao. I love coastal cities. Nothing beats the view!

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Not as impressive as the Shanghai and Beijing skylines, but beautiful all the same!

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European-style buildings…

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Some sort of government building…felt like I was in Holland

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Church?

And of course, like usual, we were tricked. Our accents and relatively pale skin (everyone there had a permanent tan) immediately marked us as tourists. We went to the same place almost everyday by taxi, and it always came out to 30 yuan (about $4 at the time). So naturally we thought that was the standard price. Then one day, we took a taxi back to our hotel, and the total came out to 18 yuan ($2.50). I gave him 30 anyways, since he was the only honest taxi driver we came across while we were there. In smaller places where the taxi drivers don’t get as much work, they tend to take the REALLY LONG routes. The amount of money is negligible, I just don’t like wasting so much time on the road.

Another taxi scam involved the taxi driver making up a story, telling us the place we’re going to is closed off because an important government official was visiting today. That sounded reasonable to us, it happens quite a bit in Beijing. He then proceeded to recommend a restaurant to us at the top of a mountain. I was starting to get suspicious, but my friend told him we’d try it out. After he took us to this mountain, we were told to buy tickets to get to the top of a TV tower. Nope, no way. Paris was already heading towards the ticket counter when I yelled at her (in English) that he was cheating us and for her to head back. After taking some quick pictures and admiring the mountain view, we walked down the mountain. Yup, WALKED. And here I thought bringing a native Chinese person who’s spent her whole life in China would ward off the scammers. Thanks a lot Paris.

In case you’re wondering, taxi drivers in a lot of touristy areas have agreements with shops or landmarks to try and bring tourists to these places in return for a cut. Beware of ultra-friendly taxi drivers.

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It was a nice view up there at least…

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View from the bottom…man that was a long hike!

Now for the beaches…we’d brought our bikinis, but turned out we really didn’t need them. Was it that cold? Nope, it was alright. Forgot to wax? Nope, we were good in that department.

Then what’s the problem?

Well this is what everyone else was wearing on the beach..

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I feel like she’s about to walk in…and never come out…

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Looks like they’ve come right after work…

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That’s what they call a bikini, and she was already getting the “she’s so slutty” looks…

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Chinese beach activities include, getting their feet wet and having their pictures taken.

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I bet that girl in the red dress has a party to go to right after…

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Finally some skin! Chinese men wear speedos when they want to swim (to my dismay).

Naturally we were both uncomfortable at the thought of wearing our bikinis in this environment. We did take off our shirts for a brief while to take some pictures, but the howling and leers that followed prompted us to quickly cover up. As it was, our pale skins stood out in the sea of tans, and men made loud lewd comments as they passed by. Oh, I forgot to mention, Chinese men like their women pale.

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It was too cloudy to sunbathe, so we did what any two girls would do when bored. Make faces at the camera!

When I lived in Beijing, fresh seafood was hard to come by. Being right by the ocean, Qingdao’s seafood is not only fresh, but cheap! Every meal was simply delectable.

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Eating is the best part of traveling!

My boyfriend has requested that I mention that Tsingdao Beer is actually pronounced “Qingdao” and is made in this area! When Tsingdao Beer came into being, the Chinese pinyin system hadn’t been invented yet, so they used Taiwanese pinyin.

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Pronounced CHINGDAO and not SINGDAO!

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Drink beer Qingdao-style!