Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013, part one: A Year of Travel, Fun, and Fatigue!

As usual, it's been far too long since my last post. I suppose that's partly to be expected, as my life here in Malaysia has – after five years – moved from something novel and fresh to something a bit more mundane and normal. That's not a bad thing, mind you, just the way it goes. So while I may have been amused and fascinated by the experience of going to Tesco when I was still a KL newbie, now it's little more than a routine chore, and certainly nothing worthy of a blog entry. The relative normalcy of a daily life like this doesn't lend itself well to blog posting, so I find it easy to overlook.

The ever-stunning Hong Kong skyscraper pantheon, seen from Victoria Hill.
My visit here is recapped at the end of this entry.

However, I have been traveling a fair bit since my last post. We are now fresh into 2014, and I thought I'd do a little retrospective catch-up to cover 2013, which featured my first trip to Vietnam, another visit to Bali, my first time back to Hong Kong since 2008, trips to Koh Samui, Phuket, and Bangkok up in Thailand, a handful of excursions to Malaysian destinations, a wonderful autumn visit back home to Colorado, and a return to Nepal to close out the year. Probably a couple of other things in there, but I can't remember it all.

Strap yourself in and enjoy... be sure to click on the photos to enlarge them. This is a long entry that covers a lot of ground!

I've long wanted to visit Vietnam, and in February of 2013, during Chinese New Year, took the opportunity to go to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) with one of my friends from Singapore. The visa for Americans to go to Vietnam is jaw-droppingly expensive: I paid RM280 for a single-entry visa, which at the time was about US$90. The Lunar New Year is celebrated perhaps every bit as much in Vietnam as in China, so it was an interesting time to visit. Most of the shops and restaurants closed down for a week's time a day or two after we arrived, in observance of the holiday, but enough stayed open to keep us entertained, and the festivals and mood of the city, plus the picture-perfect weather we enjoyed, was ample recompense for the many closed businesses. Saigon was an extraordinary city, a place in which I could easily see myself taking up residence. Numerous vestiges of French colonialism still endure, public parks and tree-lined roadways and boulevards are ample, and the people were friendly and open. And of course, the food was amazing, a particular favorite being the bánh mì thịt nướng, a scrumptious hybridized French-Vietnamese sandwich, essentially grilled meats (oven-roasted seasoned pork belly was the best choice), spices, local herbs, and chili peppers on a fresh baguette roll. Served at innumerable carts and streetside stalls throughout Saigon, this was an absolute treat every time.

Yum! Spicy and flavorful bánh mì thịt nướng

Communism and capitalism in
one harmonious frame

Saigon's historic and impressive post office

The Notre Dame Basilica of Saigon,
built between 1863 and 1880

Trishaw and street scene from
near the city center

Street food: Always a good choice anywhere in SE Asia

 Tree-lined, sun-dappled streets like this
one lent a genuine appeal to Saigon

View from our hotel room at the Intercontinental Saigon

Built in 1897, the Saigon Opera House,
foreground, is an example of the
French colonial architecture that
remains present in Saigon today

So many motorbikes!

Though not open to the public, the Saigon City Hall
building, constructed from 1902-1908,
nevertheless presents a gorgeous façade

We spent the better part of an afternoon one day morosely meandering through the War Remnants Museum, certainly a more tourist-friendly appellation than its original name, roughly translated as "The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam." In 1990, it was changed to "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression," and finally, in 1995, simply the "War Remnants Museum." I didn't take many pictures here, as it was a sobering and harsh look at the atrocities of war. Though perhaps not as vitriolically anti-American as it once was, the displays and propaganda in the museum remain largely one-sided, of course, focusing rather disproportionately on the Americans' appalling actions (napalm, Agent Orange, and the My Lai Massacre all get plenty of representation), while downplaying much of the equally horrific actions of the Viet Cong. The war in Vietnam was a miserable chapter in the world's history book, an indelible stain on the United States, a legacy of lingering tragedy in Vietnam, and but a part of the widespread horrors of that period throughout much of Southeast Asia. The War Remnants Museum is well worth visiting, but I can't say it was a cheerful experience, nor should it have been.

A Cessna aircraft converted for wartime use

A captured American F-5 fighter jet on display

A particularly poignant display near the museum's exit

On a more pleasant note, the Vietnamese New Year celebration of Tết Nguyên Đánwas was in full swing while we were there, so we got to see performances, dances, a massive street-long flower display that defied belief, loads of fireworks, and more. It was a great visit, and Saigon made a very favorable impression on me. Were it not for the outrageous visa cost, I could see myself returning to Vietnam again and again. Sadly, the fee just makes it a somewhat prohibitive destination when so many other alluring places are in the region.

Drummers practicing for the Tết Lion Dance

Vibrant Vietnamese dragonfruits
on display

One of many festive Tết displays
around the city

Crowds of people near the Ngyuen Hue
Flower Street entrance

Launched in 2004, the Ngyuen Hue
Flower Street display has quickly become
a favorite part of the Lunar New Year
celebration in Saigon

Nearly 100,000 pots of colorful flowers
are put on display for a week leading up
to the big holiday

A most enjoyable trip to Saigon was capped off by a
visit to the amazing Ngyuen Hue Flower Street

My third trip to the Thai island of Phuket took place early in 2013, and as ever, it was an enjoyable trip, filled with plenty of sun, sea, and great food. Went with a friend, did some snorkeling, traveled to some of the smaller islands, and generally had a most relaxing tropical holiday. One standout memory was a hair-raising, frankly terrifying mini-van ride to the airport as we were leaving. There were, I think, four or five of us on the little bus, and the driver was careening down the highways and side streets like a complete lunatic and how we got to the Phuket airport without crashing or killing anyone is a mystery. Passengers routinely exchanged nervous glances, and it was on the tip of several our tongues at various times to tell the guy to pull over, or at least to slow down. It was, to be blunt, the most frightening airport transfer I've ever endured.

Late afternoon at Patong Beach, Phuket

The peaceful Siam Bay on Racha Yai, or Raya Island, near Phuket

Phuket as a getaway wasn't all that unusual, really. One thing about living in this part of the world... you have the opportunity to spend a lot of time on islands. Not all are postcard-tropical and exotic, of course, and many don't come immediately to mind when we think of islands. But Singapore, Penang, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, anything on Sumatra or Borneo (which are so incredibly vast, they feel nothing like islands when you're on them) – these are all islands.

During one part of the year, I had a flurry of travel – all within just a few weeks – that took me to a spate of islands in the region. In order, I visited Koh Samui and Phuket (in Thailand), Langkawi (Malaysia), and Bali (Indonesia). None of these trips marked my first visit to any of these islands, but they were all really enjoyable sojourns, so still worthy of a recap.

Map showing the relative location of
Phuket and Koh Samui

The trip to Koh Samui was my second to this popular Thai island. Located in the Gulf of Thailand on the other side of the peninsula from Phuket and almost directly south of Bangkok (see the map), Samui is incredibly popular, but at least for now, still retains some of the charm that swaths of Phuket have lost to rampant commercialization.

We stayed at the posh Le Meridien resort in Samui on the east coast near the sumptuous Banyan Tree resort. This is a pretty good area, though the beaches are nothing special here. There are, however, loads of things for visitors to do in the area. I really like this island; it's got a great vibe and doesn't suffer when compared to the more well-known Phuket. A special treat this time – something I hadn't seen before – was a visit to the Secret Buddha Garden, a forested sanctuary hidden away in the hills of the island's interior, accessible by a winding 4WD road. The gardens are a creation of an old Samui fruit farmer, Khun Nim Thongsuk, who in 1976 (when he was 77) began erecting several statues and temples on the land here, which belonged to his family. The statues depict a number of animals, deities, and humans, including one of Khun Nim himself, sitting on a rock. Khun Nim continued to work developing his garden until his death at the age of 91. It was a cool and peaceful place, well worth a visit as a half-day alternative to Koh Samui's excellent beaches, and a great place to do some reflecting of your own.

Koh Samui's airport is small, efficient, and very
friendly. You feel as if you're on vacation from the
moment you arrive!

The roofline of the Guan Yu Koh Samui Shrine,
with contrasting coconut palms in the background

Wildly colorful bougainvilla and
swaying palm trees... I must
be in the tropics!

One of numerous Buddhist temples
on the island
Strolling in the Secret Buddha Garden, there was
a palpable sense of serenity and spirituality

A small holding pond and waterfall at the
Secret Buddha Garden

A host of dancing statues, forever frozen
in mid-performance, Secret Buddha Garden

My favorite photo from the Garden, depicting a large bird 

One of the human statues at the Garden

Preparing to eat lunch seaside

A view from the villa of the preparations
for our dinner on Le Meridien's pier

The entrance to the lovely private pool villa
at Le Meridien

Looking across the pool to the living room
pavilion at the villa

Pretty inviting looking bed, isn't it?

Le Meridien's amazing floating pier, stretching 735 ft
(224m) from Lamai Beach, and the setting for our
gourmet dinner on the final evening

Evening's last light

Another trip to Bali came my way in May, work-related, but still very much enjoyed as a getaway. This one was interesting from the start because we flew business class. In a bizarre booking fog, I was unable to book and pay for my economy class seats on Malaysia Airlines; there would continually be an error when I got to the payment screen online, and when I'd reload the page, of course, the fares were higher. So, and I don't even know why it occurred to me to check this because I virtually never do, I changed the class from economy to business and searched. There was a big biz class promotion, so the seats to Bali in the premium cabin were, paradoxically, even cheaper than those in coach... only RM50 (about US$14) more than seats on cramped, no-frills AirAsia. So we booked business class to Bali and it was only about US$300 round-trip, which is a total steal, and was a great way to start a luxury excursion.

Though we stayed at a couple of different properties on the trip, the standout was Alila Villas Soori. Located on the southwest-ish coast of Bali, well over an hour north of the chaos of the Kuta area, the villas were right on a powdery black sand beach and were just amazing. Private pool, plenty of space, great views... it was a tropical delight. We also went on a journey into the Tabanan regency of Bali, saw some amazing views and rice terraces, and even tried kopi luwak, the super-premium coffee that is quite possibly the greatest testament to the power of marketing in the history of the world, in that people pay an exorbitant price for this coffee that's not only nothing special taste-wise, it's actually made from coffee beans which have been eaten, digested, and crapped out of a small mammal called a civet. That's right, not only does marketing get people to drink poop coffee at all, it gets them to pay a handsome premium for the privilege.

The volcanic mountains of North Bali, as seen from near Ubud

A roadside café we stopped at between Ubud
and Tabanan

The black sand beaches of Bali's southwest coast

Sunset over the black sand beach

Looking out over the Indian Ocean from Alila Villas Soori

Crashing surf on the black sand beach

Ocean view from our villa's private pool and
dining pavilion

Kopi luwak: big price, little flavor

Stunning rice terraces in the Tabanan Regency of central Bali

Evening view from our villa's pavilion

The private pool and living room of our ocean view villa... not bad, eh?

I'll be returning to Bali again in the first half of 2014 (presumably) to check out and review Alila Villa's sister property, perched high on the cliffs of Uluwatu on the southern coast of the island. Can't wait!

Later in 2013, I had the chance to go to Hong Kong. Though I initially came to Malaysia (as a new resident) via Hong Kong back in September 2008, I hadn't really properly visited there since a full year before so by the time 2013 rolled around, it had been six full years since I wandered Hong Kong as a tourist. It's an amazing place, truly one of the world's greatest cities. So much energy there, so much commerce, and it's a truly fun – if slightly overwhelming at times – place to spend a few days. Fortunately, we had an amazing hotel to claim as our base camp... nothing less than a corner suite in the #1-ranked hotel in all of Hong Kong, a place called The Upper House. This hotel occupies the top 12 floors of the JW Marriott building in the Admiralty district on Hong Kong Island. Previously a luxury serviced apartment residence, the floors were taken over by Swire Properties a few years ago and redesigned and renovated into some of the nicest and largest hotel rooms and suites in Hong Kong, a place where, owing to the relative scarcity of real estate, most hotel rooms are on the small size. Our suite was over 1,200 sq ft and depending on which window you stood at, had sweeping views of Victoria Harbor, Kowloon Island, and the forested hills of Hong Kong Island looming behind the dozens and dozens of soaring skyscrapers.

The suite comprised three distinct areas: a living room,
a bedroom, and a 400-sq ft spa-like bathroom. The view
from any place in the suite was pretty special.

Central District, Hong Kong Island, with the distinctive
Bank of China building on the left and the soaring
International Finance Center on the right

The view from our suite. Well...
one of the views

In Kowloon Park, Tsim Sha Tsui. The idea
of this little area is to, wearing only socks,
walk on these tiles. Note the bars for
support. Given how alarmingly painful it is,
your first instinct is to collapse in a heap.

An impromptu lunch of deli sandwiches,
smoked almonds and Pepperidge Farms
cookies (from the mini bar), and a bottle of
wine... all enjoyed in our suite.

Beautiful view from Hong Kong Park, near our hotel

View of Admiralty and Central Districts, Hong Kong Island,
from the Avenue of Stars on Kowloon

The IFC tower dominates the skyline of Hong Kong Island

At the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui

Dim sum! A lovely basket of freshly
steamed siew mai in Tsim Sha Tsui

The view from the pedestrian bridge near our
hotel in Admiralty

The actual view from the bathtub. No joke. Simply amazing.

Another view from the suite, this time looking across Victoria Harbor
towards Kowloon, with the International Commerce Center on the left

Hong Kong's skyline really comes into its own once the sun sets

We wandered around, drinking with random people in Lan Kwai Fong, the city's unofficial party zone, enjoying the parks and water features in neighboring districts, and taking the ferry across the harbor to Kowloon, where we indulged in authentic Hong Kong dim sum and marveled at the stunning skyline of the hundreds of skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. Interestingly, since my last visit, the then-under construction 1,588-foot International Commerce Center is now completed, dominating the Kowloon side just as the 1,364-foot International Finance Center towers over the Hong Kong side. (I'll add here that while they may build impressively tall buildings, they rather suck at naming them. BORING! I guess the next one will be called the International Money Counting Center.) The last day was the best, and like Bali, a return visit is being arranged for Hong Kong in 2014, too, as there's still much to see and do in this dynamic city.

I'll wrap this entry up for now and get the pictures captioned and uploaded, then start on part two. More to follow!


barbmerchant said...

YAY! so glad to see the new post. Of course I love it--and the photos are amazing. I am in awe of your life!

Harry said...

I've two questions. What kind of camera do you use to take the pictures? And what kind of job do you have to afford all the luxuries?! :) Anyway, glad you've posted something new.

Chad M. said...

Most of my shots are taken with a Nikon D7000. I do pretty minimal post-processing apart from brightening or darkening parts of the images and optimizing the photos, which typically have very large file sizes, for online viewing.

I work as the editor for a group of magazines, so the travel is an occasional perk of the job, and sometimes the trips, like the Koh Samui trip recapped here, are work-related (though not always).