Sunday, August 7, 2011

Return to Bali, Continued

My first Saturday morning in Bali was spent naked with a Balinese woman.

Never would have thought those words would have come from my mouth before two years ago.

Back up ... our first morning in the villa included breakfast awaiting us -- gorgeous platters of chilled tropical fruit (mango, watermelon, pineapple, papaya), warm croissant, crustless toast, and French press Balinese coffee.

We are running 20 minutes behind for our eagerly awaited spa appointment at Bodyworks. The ride is a tortuous experience one would only tolerate in Bali, because of the periodic glimpses of rice terraces, flora, random swaggering chickens, roosters and cows. Most of it is comprised of twists and turns on third-world roads, surrounded by the constant buzz of motorbikes. Moreover, our driver only booked us one car for eight ladies. As a result, most of us are cramped, jostled and become quite intimate with each other with each pothole. I'm luckily Dramamine-d out in the front seat.

We arrive at Bodyworks relatively unscathed. I'm excited for my first exfoliating massage -- a "mandi lulur," which Lindsay has talked me into. 

It is a relaxing, rather sensuous experience. Beyond the diaper-like disposable panties in which you are clad.

It's a two-hour treatment, beginning with a proper Balinese massage. From there, you are rubbed with an exfoliating mix of coffee and spices (which smells amazing, particularly when it's been an hour since you've breakfasted on fruit). After that, the woman guides you to stand in a cool, stone tub and rinses you with warm, flower-scented water from a running faucet and basin next to you. Almost done. Now, you are moisturized with yogurt , then rinsed again. The last step is immersion in a proper bathtub complete with floating flower petals and a cup of warm pandan-scented tea. Bliss. The whole time, the window to your private room is open so you're caressed with the warm Balinese air and sweet smells.  The attendant is comforting and skilled. In all, a luxurious experience.

This Bali visit, overall, was one of perfect balance -- luxurious relaxation, decadent food and more local adventures. Check out Facebook for the full album.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Return to Bali

We arrive in Bali. We are starving. We are ready for battle. We race off our Air Asia flight and stuff ourselves into the bus awaiting us at the bottom of the gangplank then fall off the bus into the hell that is the Denpasar immigration hall.

It is a madhouse.

It is Bali on a Friday.

But this is more tortuous than usual because, inexplicably, only half the stalls are open. We purchase our 25USD visas on arrival then migrate over to immigration queues. We settle in for a long wait. Amy blows her nose. Allison entertains. Lindsay abandons us for the business visa line (also inexplicably long).

An hour later, after we are tortured by various odors emanating from fellow travelers, sketchy looking "free water" and smug immigration officials, we are spit out into baggage claim. There is Kari, Lindsay's friend from Turkey who, on a whim has joined our merry band of travelers.

We meet our driver and collapse into the car. Fortunately traffic is light -- one positive. Our unopened, hard-won bottles of Veuve and Grey Goose taunt us the whole way. Lindsay and Kari catch up on life and friends, and I zone out to Spanish guitar. Let the vacation begin.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

You know you're becoming Singaporean when ...

1. You add chili padi -- not chili sauce -- to everything, or so say my colleagues who claim I'm becoming Singaporean. I take this as a compliment. Fresh chili rocks.

2. You can sleep with your air-conditioning (or "air con," as the locals say) off, even though it only gets down to about 77 degrees F at night. I cheat a bit -- I have my standing fan blowing on me.

3. You can communicate with the nice taxi uncles without (or, almost without) issue. You know how to give direction -- major landmark or street first, then specific building or address, followed by a major cross street if necessary, unless you're going somewhere "local," in which case it may take them a few seconds to actually belive you mean to go there -- without resorting to charades or Google Maps. You will never be 100 percent foolproof, note.
Favorite coffee in Singapore so far -- 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru,
near Tiong Bahru Market

4. You start to prefer the local coffee -- kopi -- over Starbucks or similar chain stores. You enjoy frequenting the "kopitiams" and can order with confidence coffee -- "kopi" -- black -- "kopi o/oh" -- iced -- "peng" -- and, my personal choice, without sugar -- "kosong." If you also have embraced the local breakfast of kaya toast (this rich concoction of toast slathered with a gooey spread of kaya, which is coconut, egg, sugar and pandan) and soft-boiled eggs ... well, you may as well never leave. To be fair, I'm halfway there. I have forsaken Starbucks and the like generally and have gravitated toward some of the local cafes and roasters -- e.g., the exceptional 40 Hands in Tiong Bahru. Best. Latte. EVER.

5. You forego expensive grocery chains like Cold Storage and brave the local markets. A recent shopping excursion at Tiong Bahru Market for ingredients to make Thai green mango salad ran me about SGD10 -- for green mango, Thai basil, cilantro, red pepper, chil padi, limes and a few other produce items for the week. The same purchases at Cold Storage would have ran me SGD20+. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Weekend Getaway -- The Heat is on in Saigon

Market day on streets
all around Saigon
Photo: Desiree Koh
I have been most excited for my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, still known to everyone except government officials as "Saigon." I simply ravage any Vietnamese food and am curious to see this country that has played such a significant role in American history for the past 40 years.

In the most anti-climactic moment on this blog, I have to admit it's hard to find words to describe the experience.

It easily has been my favorite Asian travel experience so far. There is something very beautiful in its simplicity. Here was where we simply strolled and observed life -- shopkeepers and vendors tending to their stalls, psuedo-chefs whipping up streetside banh mi, mounds of various sticky rices, lanes and lanes of the infamous motorbike, along with key historic sites like the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame and the rooftop of the Rex Hotel (where the GIs conducted their daily press briefings, coined the "five o'clock follies," during the war.

Motorbike parade. Every day.
Photo: Desiree Koh
In an ironic twist, we happened to arrive on the exact anniversary of Reunification Day, aka the Fall of Saigon, when the Communist tanks stormed the iron gates of the Reunification Palace and essentially kicked out the Americans.

Presidential Receiving Room @ Reunification Palace
Photo: Desiree Koh
So the story goes: after the tanks crashed through the gates of the palace, a Viet Cong soldier ran to the fourth floor balcony and flew the flag for all to see. The South Vietnamese government awaited the VC in the second-floor presidential receiving room, where they greeted the VC officers with, "I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you." VC replied: "You cannot give up what you do not have." The palace is eerie. It looks nearly identical to how it looked on that day. They haven't changed much but to put up some glass walls and entrance ropes.

Infinitely more eerie was the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. There was little new information per se, but what was astonishing was seeing it from a very different perspective. There were photos, stories and exhibits you wouldn't see in the States, for various reasons. We came face to face with the atrocities from that war ... the My Lai massacre, Agent Orange, torture, destroyed villages ... haunting images. Our favorite part was the Requiem Exhibition, which includes a collection of striking photos from war photographers from around the world, as well as feature stories and insights on their lives, deaths and experience.

A sampan ride. Heaven.
Photo: Desiree Koh
We spent three full days in Vietnam, including a Sunday day trip to the tunnels of Cu Chi, 250km of intricate tunnels the VC dug and used to harass the Americans and South Vietnamese for years, undetected.

We then floated along the islands of the Mekong River. A very worthwhile jaunt, with the highlight being the time we spent island hopping with our private guide. We schlepped through a remote tropical forest, sampling various tropical fruits from the trees. We then had tea and more fruit at the home of a local family (who owned the trees we were enjoying!).

Des took amazing photos -- the best way to see our experience.
Banh mi. THE best sandwich. Des' obsession.
Photo: Desiree Koh

Our first bowl of pho. You know I'm already obsessed.
Photo: Desiree Koh

Prayer. Notre Dame.
Photo: Desiree Koh

Photo: Desiree Koh

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Funny Signs 4

Hallway to toilets at Oskar bar on Soi 11, Bangkok, April 2011.

The bathroom humor in Bangkok continues.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Funny Signs 3

Family restaurant near the river. Bangkok. April 2011.
 Beware of the door? Men, don't barge in on women while they are loo-ing?? Not sure. So I turned to Facebook for an explanation.

When you see a hot lady walk by, bang your head?  -- Carla

Warning, peeping toms frequent this toilet? -- Lisa DM

Should we even ask what he's ducking to avoid getting hit by? -- Mike