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.

2014-03-04 11.57.08-2

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.

2014-03-16 13.36.25

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.

2014-03-04 13.28.03

2014-03-04 13.28.53

2014-03-04 13.29.13

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.

2014-03-04 13.41.54 2014-03-04 13.35.132014-03-04 13.35.53  2014-03-04 13.20.44

2014-03-04 13.15.44

Beautiful view of the coast.

2014-03-04 13.44.10

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!

2014-03-04 13.52.03

Starbucks is fancy here.

2014-03-04 18.01.10 2014-03-04 16.17.32

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

2014-03-04 16.11.29 2014-03-04 16.11.40

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!

2014-03-04 18.00.48 2014-03-04 17.17.23

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!

2014-03-04 18.50.39

Advertisements

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

You know how if you live in a certain place, you never get around to seeing the famous sights in the area? I know people who have lived in Beijing for their entire lives and never went around to see the Great Wall, and Californians who decided they don’t need to go to Disneyland. The Grand Mosque is kind of like that for me. I visited it as a tourist and was so enthralled that I vowed I would come see it again once I moved here. Didn’t happen. So far it’s been almost a year, and I pass by all the time, all the time promising myself that next time I’ll go see it.

The Grand Mosque, also known as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, was a vision of the late founder and of the UAE, and completed after his passing. Like most everything in the UAE, money was no object when it comes to making this beautiful piece of architecture; it cost 2 billion AED, or 545 million USD to build the Grand Mosque. Materials and designers were brought all over the world to help with the project.

SAM_2073 SAM_2129SAM_2076SAM_2077

The Grand Mosque under the hot desert sun.

SAM_2134 SAM_2131

SAM_2137

The Grand Mosque at dusk.

Some people like to compare the Grand Mosque to the age-old ones in Turkey, and dismiss it for lacking history. I think the Grand Mosque is just as beautiful, with just as much care and reverence put into it as any of the older ones.

If you’re going to the Grand Mosque, don’t bother trying to cover every inch of your skin. If you’re a woman, they’re going to make you wear an abaya (traditional clothing for Emirati women) no matter what. For men, as long as you’re wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves, you don’t have to borrow a dish-dasha (traditional clothing for Emirati men). Ho strict is their dress code? Before you put on an abaya, they won’t even let you take a picture with the mosque.

mideast-united-arab-emirates-rihanna

Remember when Rihanna ruffled some feathers because she took some “provacative” pictures in the Grand Mosque?

SAM_2080 SAM_2082

I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear an article of clothing that dozens of people have worn before me, but I do love how slimming it is!

We were assigned an Emirati tour guide who spoke perfect English to show us around the Grand Mosque. He gave us a lot of interesting information about the symbolism and designs of the mosque, as well as about their religion. I learned that the call to prayer plays five times a day, at different times every day depending on when the sun sets. I’ve since gotten so used to it that I barely hear it anymore, but at the time I was woken up every morning at around 4am by the morning call. Even malls play it on their loudspeakers, and provide prayer rooms for shoppers to stop by. Don’t be surprised to find men and women washing their hands and feet in a public bathroom; they’re required to clean both before praying.

There are endless details that I could go on about, but my favorite are the domes. There are 82 domes in the mosque, each more intricate than the last.

SAM_2098 SAM_2104SAM_2079

One day, I’m going to go back and take a picture of each and every one of those domes…

The inside of the mosque is awe-inspiring. Big enough to accommodate 40,000 worshippers at once

SAM_2099 SAM_2103

SAM_2127 SAM_2114

Flowers are featured everyone inside and outside the mosque.

SAM_2108

The carpet inside the Grand Mosque is the largest in the world, and took 1,200 weavers 21 months to make. You’d definitely understand why they insist you take your shoes off before walking on it!

SAM_2112SAM_2113

The 98 names of Allah, one in each 5-petaled flower. If you look closely though, you’ll notice a blank one. The guide informed us that as humans we can’t possibly presume to know all the ways of Allah, and so one flower is left blank.

SAM_2117 SAM_2110

Another world record, the biggest chandelier in the world!

For everyone visiting the UAE, the Grand Mosque is definitely a must-see! Not only are the guided tours informative and interesting, it really gives you a glimpse into Emirati culture. Just going shopping at the various malls can’t give you that.

That’s it for the Grand Mosque! I’m going to the Qasr al Hosn Festival tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll have more to share soon!

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).

2014-02-15 13.30.59

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

SAM_2138

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

Photo Apr 27, 1 17 05 PM

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:

tumblr_inline_mlm5f04Lsx1qz4rgp

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.

130501_goldsmith_cpk-902_lores

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

2014-02-15 14.31.44

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!

2014-02-15 19.00.56

Probably the fanciest Shake Shack in the world.

2014-02-15 18.29.49

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!

Photo Sep 28, 7 13 25 PM

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.

SAM_2180

 

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.

SAM_2183SAM_2140

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.

2014-02-15 13.41.16

 

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.

2014-02-15 13.39.29

Just looking at it will give you a sugar rush…

Photo Apr 26, 3 27 39 PM

There’s the Asian eyes again…

2014-02-15 15.16.42 2014-02-15 15.16.15

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.

2014-02-15 13.44.54

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.

 

2014-02-15 13.43.15

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.

2014-02-15 15.43.55

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…

2014-02-15 15.19.552014-02-15 15.21.32

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

2014-02-15 15.24.42

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

2014-02-15 19.02.48

 

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

 

2014-02-15 19.03.21

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

2014-02-15 15.10.15

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!

 

 

 

How to Survive a Long Flight

Last year I took a 15-hour flight with United from Beijing to Washington D.C. As you can imagine, it was not fun. The seats were small and cramped, the aisles so narrow that you couldn’t get to the bathroom without bumping into a person or two. They only allow one checked bag for free, so the overhead bins were overflowing with large carry-ons and duty-free purchases. I sat next to an elderly lady who played Sudoku the entire time, all the while muttering “6…6…6…5…5”. All but one of the flight attendants only spoke English, which isn’t usually a problem for me, but on this flight I ended up having to translate for most of the Chinese passengers sitting around me (not cool). They brought around water exactly three times (once every 5 hours!), and the food sucked.

But I survived. And I want to help you survive too.

Before the flight:

1. Lay off the coffee- The extra perk you get isn’t worth the chapped lips and dry throat on the plane. Besides, you want to sleep as much as possible, right?

2. Wear comfortable clothes– And that includes underwear! No thongs! You don’t want to be the girl (or guy) who’s lifting their ass up every few minutes to undo their super wedgie. I always bring out my Lululemon yoga pants for long flights, despite all the protests that yoga pants should only be worn when doing yoga. Free upgrades are super rare now, so no reason to dress up for that either. My feet swell a lot, so I usually wear shoes half a size to one size bigger than normal on flights.

3. Go au naturel- This means no makeup, no contacts, no hair gel. Makeup will turn dry and cakey after a few hours on the plane (just look at the flight attendants), and your eyeballs will dry up and get super irritated if you wear contacts. Hair gel ends up looking like dandruff. Super gross.

4. Plan your sleep schedule- If you’re arriving at your destination in the morning, you should try to get as much sleep as possible, with aid from medication if necessary. If you’re arriving at night, make sure not to sleep too much on the plane (I find three hours to be more than enough to keep me refreshed). This is the best way to get over jet lag quickly or skip it altogether.

5. Book an aisle seat online- Yes, aisle seats can be annoying, but it’s not as annoying as hesitating to go to the bathroom because the person next to you is asleep. Not drinking water is not an option either; you’ll be a wreck when you land.

What to bring on the plane:

1. Throw/blanket- The airplanes ones are always flimsy, and more often than not, grimy. And with the planes getting fuller, there’s often a shortage. It sucks to be cold on a long flight, so this is a must.

2. Eye mask- You’ll need one in case the person next to you decides to read. Darkness also helps you stay in deep sleep longer.

3. A good airplane pillow- And not those soft donuts they sell at the airport convenience stores. Those have poor support for the neck, and when your chin inevitably droops to your chest, you’ll wake up to killer neck pain. I found this super awesome pillow at Osim that ties around the neck and supports the chin so the head doesn’t move at all. The downside is, it only fits women and not men (unless you happen to have one of those super skinny giraffe necks).

2013-10-19-00-41-17osim-usnooz-massage-wrap-neck-shoulder-massager-500x500

My plane blanket, neck pillow, and self-heating eye masks.

4. Skincare/personal hygiene products- Yup, even men need moisturizer on planes; no one likes to have dry, flaky skin. A small tub of Vaseline will take care of most of your needs on a plane. If you don’t want to bring a toothbrush and toothpaste, at least bring a little bottle of mouthwash. For more tips, check out my post on Airplane Beauty.

5. An e-reader- I was one of those die-hard “paper is better” advocates until recently, when I moved to a place where good English books are relatively rare. I’m also a pretty fast reader, and for a 15-hour flight I’d need to bring at least three books to keep me occupied. So on my last trip back to the states, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. It’s smaller and lighter than an iPad, and doesn’t have that harsh backlight that makes your eyes hurt after a while. This is nice to have on the plane, both for variety (sometimes you just don’t feel like reading what you brought) and for the fact that you don’t have to be that annoying guy with the reading light on while everyone else is trying to sleep.

2014-01-23 14.48.07

My new best friend! It’s almost like reading paper…

6. An empty water bottle-I used to just buy a bottle of water after I’ve passed security and bring it on the plane with me, but more and more airports are starting to set up security right before you enter the gate. Depending on the airport, you may or may not be allowed to bring a water bottle in. Why do you need to have your own water? Don’t planes provide water? Yes, but you really want to be dependent on flight attendants bringing around water for your hydration needs, and besides, what about wasting all those plastic cups? I like to have some water on me so I can drink whenever I’m thirsty, and not have to wait for someone to bring it.

2014-01-23 14.48.35

I got the Ecuo Can because it’s good for both cold and hot drinks, and completely leak-proof.

7. Good headphones/earphones- If you’re planning on watching movies, definitely bring your own. Those awful headphones provided on the planes cause headaches and doesn’t fit anyone’s head properly. You can find those double-prong connectors at most music specialty stores.

8. Bring a soft carry-on case- Because of all the check-in restrictions and no limitations of duty-free shopping, the overhead bins are almost always overflowing. If you have a hard case with nowhere to put it, it’s a pain for the flight attendants and everyone involved. With a soft case, you can keep it under your seat and have everything you need nearby.

9. Snacks- Is it just me, or is airplane food getting worse? While some airlines provide pretty good fare, some airplane meals are just inedible. Rather than risk a stomachache later on, it’s a good idea to bring some snacks in case you want to pass on whatever mush they’re serving you.

10. Warm socks- Some airlines (like Etihad and Cathay Pacific) provide little bags with amenities like toothbrushes, eye masks and socks. For everyone else, it’s a good idea to bring your own socks so you don’t have to keep your shoes on to stay warm.

2014-01-23 15.27.09

My panda airplane socks lol

11. Aromatherapy oils: Ok, I admit, this one is a little weird. But who hasn’t sat next to someone with horrible breath? Or sat in front of a person with smelly feet and decided to take off their shoes? And oh god, if the person hasn’t washed their hair in a while…(excuse me while I throw up). I usually bring some with me to dab under my nose in case something like that happens, which is quite often. Also, the smell of lavender will also help you sleep. Make sure to put the oil in an opaque glass bottle with a volume of less than 100mL; aromatherapy oils are expensive, and you don’t want TSA confiscating it. For the manly men, if aromatherapy oils are too girly for you, vaporub works just as well!

After the flight:

It’s always better if you can arrange for the day you land to be free of any and all obligations. Even if you’re on vacation and eager to get started, it’s best to get rested so that you’re not haunted by fatigue for the rest of the trip. Getting over jet lag should be your first priority, the Eiffel Tower will still be there tomorrow!

That’s all I can think of for now, I’ll update if I think of anything else!

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

Photo Feb 11, 4 51 44 PM

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

Photo Feb 14, 2 17 25 PM

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

March 2013

Photo Mar 09, 1 55 42 PM

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

Photo Mar 09, 2 59 11 PM

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

Photo Mar 21, 7 16 06 AM

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

Photo Mar 16, 7 16 27 PM Photo Mar 16, 7 15 17 PM

My good-bye party. Byebye Beijing!

April 2013

Photo Apr 01, 3 44 23 PM

Celebrating Easter with my bunny in Abu Dhabi!

Photo Apr 18, 4 59 21 PMPhoto Apr 06, 3 04 14 PM

 Adjusting to pink limos and the forbidden pork…

May 2013

Photo May 04, 7 32 20 PM Photo May 05, 11 47 38 AM

Fell in love with Istanbul

Photo May 08, 5 28 26 AM Photo May 17, 12 15 31 PM

 Enjoying the thermal pools at Pammukkale

Photo May 06, 4 58 59 PM

Taking a dip in Cleopatra’s Pool

June 2013

Photo Jun 15, 4 08 18 PM

Amazing meal at Armani Ristorante in Dubai

Photo Jun 15, 4 08 00 PM Photo Jun 15, 9 46 54 AM

 On top of the world at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

July 2013

Photo Jul 16, 4 03 42 AM

First henna experience at the Central Souk in Abu Dhabi

Photo Jul 10, 12 37 20 AM Photo Aug 01, 4 39 32 AM

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

Photo Jul 31, 2 44 27 AM

Isn’t Vancouver beautiful?

Photo Jul 28, 4 18 04 AM Photo Jul 28, 4 15 56 AM

Visiting Capilano Suspension Bridge with Tim!

August 2013

Photo Aug 10, 5 32 55 PM

Taking a walk on Lanikai Beach in Hawaii

Photo Aug 06, 5 52 27 PM

View from Pali Lookout in Oahu.

September 2013

Photo Aug 30, 5 29 19 PM

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

October 2013

Photo Oct 11, 5 54 07 PM Photo Oct 12, 4 44 32 PM

Throughly enjoying my first foray into Europe, Prague!

Photo Oct 13, 4 58 11 PM

Beautiful view of the Charles Bridge

Photo Oct 14, 1 50 15 PM

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

Photo Oct 15, 9 18 51 PM

Learning about Princess Sisi in Vienna

Photo Oct 15, 5 04 01 PM

Ferris wheel that survived WWII

November 2013

Photo Nov 01, 10 48 38 PM

Celebrating our two year anniversary in Abu Dhabi

Photo Nov 11, 2 55 24 PM Photo Nov 11, 3 29 49 PM

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!

Photo Nov 15, 11 17 31 AM

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

Photo Nov 15, 11 42 31 AM

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

Photo Nov 15, 11 52 08 AM

Wonder if it’s been full since the Olympics?

December 2013

Photo Dec 02, 8 43 28 PM

Celebrating my little sister’s eight birthday in Shanghai

 

Photo Dec 05, 5 59 36 AM

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

Photo Dec 05, 10 52 38 AM

Starbucks, Chinese-style!

Photo Dec 05, 2 11 42 PM

Taking a walk by the Shanghai bund

Photo Dec 07, 6 09 03 AM Photo Dec 07, 6 36 34 AM

Pigeon Slangin’ in Chengdu

Photo Dec 10, 3 26 19 PM Photo Dec 10, 5 12 07 PM

Celebrating Paris’ 27th at ABC cooking studio in Beijing

Photo Dec 10, 12 55 37 PM

I made this!

Photo Dec 22, 1 37 40 PM

Petting tigers at Tiger Kingdom in Phuket

Photo Dec 23, 7 21 09 AM

Feeding elephants in Phuket

Photo Dec 22, 7 51 36 PM

Posing with men prettier than me…

Photo Dec 24, 1 17 59 PM Photo Dec 24, 1 17 34 PM

Standing in the aquamarine waters of Ko Phi Phi

Photo Dec 25, 2 44 34 PM Photo Dec 25, 2 50 21 PM

Celebrating Christmas in Bangkok…stuffed Christmas tree anyone?

Photo Jan 01, 8 58 58 PM  IMG_0885

Chasing sunsets in Bali

Photo Dec 31, 6 57 53 PM

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

Bali-News-Jakarta-Traffic

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.

IMG_1230

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.

1000w boots-natural-insect-repellent-pump-spray-18926672

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.

2013-12-31 15.23.37

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.

2013-12-31 16.47.01

Same color, similar hat, but not a Bluebird.

2013-12-31 16.46.45

No “Blue Bird Group” on the windshield.

IMG_1226

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.

2013-12-28 16.26.03

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.

2013-12-29 18.17.50

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

2013-12-29 18.27.24

No filters, just nature.

2014-01-02 15.05.06

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

2013-12-29 18.27.29

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

2013-12-29 18.39.04

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

2013-12-30 18.35.31

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

2013-12-30 18.37.04

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.

2013-12-30 18.47.29

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).

2013-12-28 18.33.25-1

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

2013-12-31 20.27.22

Checkered sarong as modeled by Zulfan.

2013-12-27 20.48.15

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.

2014-01-12 17.36.42 2014-01-03 20.25.05

Balinese wood carvings

2013-12-29 18.17.05-1

Kite flying at Kuta Beach.

2014-01-03 11.32.01

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

2014-01-02 09.41.31

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.

2013-12-31 20.14.09

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

2013-12-31 20.28.03

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

IMG_1133

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

IMG_1179

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

2013-12-31 22.22.28

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!

2013-12-27 17.23.322013-12-27 17.23.40

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

IMG_0757

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…

2013-12-28 10.45.32

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

2013-12-28 11.10.42 2013-12-31 13.43.31 2013-12-31 15.19.35 IMG_0736

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.

IMG_1016

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

2013-12-30 13.59.21

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.

2013-12-30 22.37.15-1

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

2014-01-01 23.06.48

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!

IMG_1319 IMG_1318

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

2014-01-02 17.45.232014-01-02 14.59.42-2

Oh to wake up everyday to this!

IMG_1347 IMG_1366

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

2014-01-02 15.06.53

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.

2014-01-03 10.34.16

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.

2014-01-02 20.24.26

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

2014-01-02 19.30.24

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.

IMG_0776

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!