Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi and Halong Bay

The capital city of any country always has a unique charm, and Hanoi is certainly the cultural capital of Vietnam. From traditional water puppet shows and elaborate opera productions to the distinct European influence in the French Quarter, Hanoi is filled with endless opportunities and avenues to explore and get to know arts, culture, and history of Vietnam. Check out the top attractions in this happening Southeast Asian capital!

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater 

Water puppetry is one of the widely sought after activities among tourists who visit Hanoi. The origins of water puppet theater come from farming in the rice paddy fields, where farmers used bamboo rods on makeshift puppets to entertain one another during monsoons. This village tradition has developed into a professional art form that is now performed in theaters all over the country. Water puppet shows generally have live music accompaniment, and the content featured is a mix of Vietnamese folk tales and stories about the harvest. The highlights of this show were the intricate formations, fancy lights, and melodious music and sound effects!

Hoan Kiem Lake

The central, bustling area of Hanoi surrounds the Hoan Kiem Lake. This part of town is filled with shops, restaurants, and street vendors, and on weekends, expect to be surprised with a random live music band or Tinikling (Filipino folk dance using bamboo sticks) lining the cobblestone path around the lake. If you’re looking for a classy dinner out in this area, Pizza 4P’s offers gourmet Italian fare with excellent service. The best part about Hoan Kiem Lake is that it is a walking-only area with no cars or motorbikes. A tourist’s paradise for getting to know Hanoi by night!

Halong Bay

To escape from the urban vibe of Hanoi, take a mini getaway trip into Halong Bay, which features one of the greatest natural landscapes in Vietnam. A three-hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay is home to about 1900 islands and caves. Legend has it that centuries ago, when Vietnam was at war, the Vietnamese people prayed to Buddha, who sent a dragon down to help the people. The dragon was said to have spit out many pearls scattered all over the bay. These pearls combined with the water to form hundreds of tiny islands, which ultimately confused enemy ships and caused them to lose their way when approaching the eastern port of Vietnam.

There are many options for cruising in Halong Bay, with the overnight cruise being the most popular. Due to limited time, we opted for a day cruise consisting of a five-hour boat ride in the bay, including a one-hour walking tour of one of the caves. The inside of the cave is cooler in temperature and filled with stalactites and stalagmites in its three chambers. Regardless of which cruise option you choose, the views and picturesque scenery in the bay are to die for! It’s no surprise that Halong Bay has been declared one of the new natural wonders of the world.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral 

Known for its French influence, Hanoi features a replica of the famous Notre Dame de Paris. Vietnam was colonized by France in the 19th century, during which time settlers recreated architectural landmarks in what was then French Indochina. St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi is a replica of the Notre Dame de Paris, and its location in Hanoi’s French Quarter neighborhood allows tourists to travel back in time to visualize a Vietnam under French rule.

Hanoi Opera House

Like St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House too was constructed during the French occupation of Vietnam. Centuries ago it featured primarily European artists and productions performing in front of elite audiences; however, today a mix of European and Vietnamese operas and orchestras perform regularly at the Hanoi Opera House.

Temple of Literature 

Being the capital city, Hanoi was one of the first places in the country to offer institutions of higher education. The Temple of Literature is home to the Imperial Academy, which was Vietnam’s first national university. It is both a place of worship and an educational institution. The temple honors Confucius and other inspirational scholars who were committed to the acquisition of knowledge in a sacred space. The complex contains displays of diplomas carved on single blocks of stone and is occasionally home to ceremonies and rituals.

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Vietnam Diaries: Hoi An River Town

When people think of Vietnam, a host of associations, misconceptions, and stereotypes often accompany their thinking. After spending about a week in different parts of this country, I have learned that there is so much more to this diverse nation than the dominant war-stricken tale narrated in history textbooks.

Hoi An (an hour drive from the major city Da Nang) is a river town located on the banks of the Thu Bon River. It’s in the central part of Vietnam and provides a nice getaway from large, populated cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The main attractions in Hoi An revolve around the Ancient Town area and water-based activities.

Ancient Town

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ancient Town is the most happening area in Hoi An river town. Lined with shopkeeper’s stalls, spas, cafes, and cute eateries, Ancient Town is also home to assembly halls, temples, museums, and communal houses preserved from over hundreds of years ago. Purchasing a ticket allows visitors entrance into 5 different preserved structures. Because of the heat, Ancient Town is often crowded after sunset, when both locals and tourists come out to experience the vibrant night life of Hoi An.

Going on a boat ride in the Ancient Town area is a must, especially during sunset! There’s even the opportunity to set candles afloat in the river as an offering to departed souls.

An Bang Beach

In addition to being situated on the banks of a river, Hoi An is also on the coast of Vietnam, which places it in close proximity to beaches! An Bang is a premium, luxurious beach with soft sand and clear water. It is primarily filled with tourists, as locals tend to flock to Da Nang Beach. The water temperature is so perfect that getting out of the ocean (especially in the heat) is not a favorable option. This beach is a great way to cool down and relax for hydrophilic vacationers!

Thanh Ha Pottery Village

A boat ride in the main Thu Bon River typically includes a trip to the Thanh Ha Pottery Village, located about 30 minutes south of Ancient Town on the river. It is a collaborative living community where everyone in the village contributes in some way to the pottery process (from collecting mud to painting the final product). The highlight of the visit was witnessing a 94-year-old woman create perfect vases and other items on the pottery wheel. Check it out!

Cooking Tour

Although we didn’t have a chance to do a cooking tour, it is advertised as being one of the more popular activities, not just in Hoi An but in all of Vietnam. The tourists and the cooking instructor go to the market to purchase all the required ingredients before making a traditional Vietnamese dish. Definitely one of the more organic ways of cooking and tasting local Vietnamese food!

Spa-Massage

Getting a massage in Hoi An is a must, especially after all the walking and shopping in the heat. The best and often cheapest option is a 30-minute foot massage, which is typically followed by a five-minute neck and shoulder rub at the end. While massages can be a hit or miss anywhere in the world, a traditional Vietnamese foot massage is just what you need at the end of a long day.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Siem Reap, Cambodia – A journey into ancient spirituality

Southeast Asia is known for being a hotbed of sand, spices, and sushi. However, in this fertile land of culture, religion and spirituality too have grown and developed over the centuries, leading to the construction of the largest temple in the world. While Angkor Wat is the most popular temple, there are others in the surrounding complex that are well worth visiting as well (and come with the ticket price). Check out the top attractions in Siem Reap!

Angkor Wat

A majority Buddhist nation today, the Kingdom of Cambodia has traces of Hinduism in its past that arose primarily during the leadership of the Khmer Empire. In fact, Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Vishnu temple by King Surya Varman II in the 12th century, and it was subsequently converted into a Buddhist temple. The royal family only went to the temple once or twice a month for prayers and ceremonies.

The temple structure is surrounded by a moat of water to protect against enemies and destruction. Angkor Wat represents the mystical mountain (Mount Meru), the center of all spiritual/cosmic forces in the universe and the gateway to heaven in Hinduism. As such, there are five gopurams (towers) for the main temple. During the 16th century, the Siamese invasion into and battles with the Khmer empire brought with it some destruction to Angkor Wat and surrounding temple structures. Though most of it is still intact, restoration to protect existing structures is well underway at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Definitely don’t miss the opportunity for a 5am sunrise visit to Angkor Wat. It is simply remarkable and an experience not to be missed when visiting this cradle of cultural and history.

Angkor Thom/Bayon

Just north of Angkor Wat temple is Angkor Thom, the capital city that was home to the Khmer local people. Bayon temple in Angkor Thom was built after Angkor Wat during King Jaya Varman’s reign. It is a Mahayana Buddhist temple with several large depictions of Buddha’s face all around. Unfortunately, this temple has undergone quite a bit of destruction compared to other temples in the complex but there is still a considerable amount to see.

Elephant Terrace

This is a nice open terrace which used to function as a viewing area in the Khmer empire. There are elephant carvings on parts of the structures from which the terrace derives its name. Mostly a set of ruins today, the trees overlaying the terrace provide a nice cool breeze that is much needed when visiting this region during the hot season.

Kulen Mountain/Phnom Kulen

Kulen Mountain or Phnom Kulen, about an hour drive from the town of Siem Reap, is home to many interesting attractions, including a large reclining Buddha temple, a waterfall, and a riverbed of 1,000 shivalingas. Located atop a hill, the Buddha temple (Preah Ang Thom) is very similar to Wat Pho temple in Bangkok Thailand, both of which represent the Buddha reclining in a state of nirvana. Preah Ang Thom is also a monastery where Buddhist rituals and ceremonies take place daily.

The 1,000 lingas relief (Kbal Spean) was built many centuries ago by King Surya Varman I’s minister and now lies below the Siem Reap River. Erosion has caused a considerable amount of damage to the lingas, many of which are small, but it is a rare and remarkable attraction to see in a majority Buddhist nation.

Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei was built in the 10th century (before Angkor Wat) as a dedication to Lord Shiva. Made of a brilliant red sandstone, the structural carvings are filled with references to Hindu epics, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are also scenes of Shiva and Parvathi that can be found on close examination.

Traditional Cambodian Dance

There are several places throughout Siem Reap that offer an opportunity for art lovers to catch a traditional Cambodian dance performance. We went for a dinner and dance combo at Kulen Restaurant, where the artists performed a mix of folk pieces and traditional classical dances (known as Apsara dance). The slow movements and costume (including elaborate headdress) of Apsara dance are very similar to Thai traditional dance, and performances typically feature live music accompaniment.

Indonesia Diaries: Lombok – Paradise of Islands!

One year later and I am back in Southeast Asia’s wonderfully diverse country, Indonesia, with even more travels, rich adventures, and memorable experiences. I got to spend this past Christmas weekend with beloved family on the island of Lombok, which is part of the West Nusa Tenggara province. Like other islands of the Indonesian archipelago, Lombok is home to many beaches and picturesque landscapes that will make you feel at peace and one with nature.

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Here are some of the top attractions to check out during a getaway to this popular tourist island!

Kuta Beach

Our first stop in Lombok was Kuta Beach, which is one of the more well-known beaches in the southern part of Lombok. Many restaurants and hotels are conveniently located in the town of Kuta, allowing for easy access to the water and other attractions in south Lombok. There is a rocky overlook that you can cross the water to reach but brace yourself, for the path to get there is somewhat treacherous and slippery.

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Tanjung A’an Beach

Unlike many of the beaches in and around Lombok, Tanjung A’an is one of the few that actually has soft sand without rocks or broken pieces of shells strewn on the shore. There is a hilly plateau at Tanjung A’an beach where you can see a view of Lombok and the vast Indian Ocean. Because of the rough waves, this beach is also great for surfing, and we were able to see many brave surfers test their skills in the water.

Sasak Village

The local tribe in Lombok is called the Sasak and tourists can visit their village to learn more about their culture and lifestyle. This living community is characterized by homes made of cement and bamboo with layers of thatched roofs. They even have separate huts for the sole purpose of storing rice during the monsoon season. An interesting tidbit we learned was that if there is not enough rice to feed everyone, no weddings will happen in the village.

Weaving Village

Weaving is one of the main activities for traditional Sasak women. In fact, since women are only eligible for marriage if they know how to weave, girls start learning and perfecting this skill as early as nine years of age. At the weaving village, I had the opportunity to try my hand at this task and manual weaving is not as easy as it seems! Take a look at one of the resident expert weavers showing us how it is done.

Gili Trawangan

Off the coast of Lombok are several smaller islands, called gilis, which have become popular tourist destinations for anyone who visits Lombok. Gili Trawangan is the largest and most popular gili, located a 15 minute boat ride away from the Teluk Nara port in Lombok. On the gili, there is no motor transportation so the only ways to get around are by foot, bicycle, or horse-driven carts. There is quite a bit to do on Gili Trawangan, from water sports like snorkeling and diving to seeing the turtle conservatory. One thing that is not to be missed is the over-the-water swings at Ombok Sunset Hotel. For Bollywood aficionados like me who fantasize about swinging above water, this is the place to fulfill that dream! Gili Trawangan is also known for its night life, with several bars and lounges around the island. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to see the sunset but that is also worth checking out if possible.

Malimbu Hills

Malimbu Hills Sunset Point has one of the most breathtaking views of Bali Sea and the gilis off the coast of Lombok. Fortunately, the sun cooperated and we were able to see the glistening shades of blue and aqua on the water against the dark green mountains and coconut trees. Indulging in a quick bite with some corn on the cob garnished with salt and other spices as you enjoy a sunset at this picturesque point is the perfect end to a long day of sightseeing.

Mount Rinjani

Since we only stayed for about 2-3 days in Lombok, there was not nearly enough time to cover everything and Mount Rinjani is one of those attractions I need to return to the island to visit. Rinjani is the second highest active volcano in Indonesia, and it is located in the northern part of Lombok within Gunung Rinjani National Park. Like Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania, Rinjani is a caldera consisting of a crater lake and hot springs. Tourists can trek up to Mount Rinjani for a great view of what lies within.

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England: Countryside, Cocktails, and Cups of Tea

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you tell people you’re traveling to England? Tea and scones. A British accent. And of course, the buzzing capital city: London. But this world-conquering nation has much more to offer and sometimes the best vacations come from non-mainstream destinations.

Manchester. Most popularly known for its soccer/football team Manchester United, and Mancunians sure are proud of their football history and heritage. Visiting friends in Manchester and vacationing in and around the second-largest commercial and industrial city of England taught me a lot about British culture – things that you would only get to know by willingly seeing more than just London.

Manchester town centre is best accessed by public transport (bus, tram, train) and best explored on foot. England is a country rich in history; as such, many of Manchester’s attractions – libraries, museums, art galleries and stadiums professing sports history – are academic in nature. From seeing the first computer “Baby” at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) to witnessing changes in women’s fashion trends at the Manchester Art Gallery to passing by The Curry Mile or going for a stroll in Gay Village, tourists will leave with their dose of fun facts and general knowledge. Architecture buffs – be sure to check out Manchester Central Library, John Rylands Library, and the Manchester Cathedral, which feature elements of gothic and greco-roman construction.

What is a British vacation without quintessential English food and drink! For vegetarians and vegans alike, Manchester offers plenty of options. One of my first traditional English meals was wild mushroom and asparagus pie with a side of mashed potatoes and mashed green peas – a bit bland for someone like me with spicy taste but a good start to the vacation nevertheless. Another favorite British meal or snack food is jacket potatoes, which is essentially a baked potato filled with your choice of baked beans or cheese. Definitely don’t miss an afternoon high tea experience at the beautifully decorated wonderland that is Richmond Tea Rooms: select your favorite tea infusion and complement it with sandwiches, quiche, and scones with clotted cream!

Summer holiday means long days but the nights are still young! London is not the only city with great nightlife – Manchester too has its fair share of bars, pubs, and clubs. Our first stop one evening was Matt & Phreds, where we listened to Dana Ali’s band from Atlanta, Georgia, as part of the weeklong Manchester Jazz Festival. After the first round of drums and drinks at Matt & Phreds, we headed over to The Fitzgerald, a classy bar with cooky Charlie Chaplin video clips accompanying the DJ’s tunes. Other nighttime places to check out in Manchester town center are Apotheca, which serves unique drinks and offers cocktail classes, Elixir Tonics and Treats (unfortunately it was closed during my visit), and The Alchemist, which I was unable to get to but will definitely visit next time around!

Had enough of city madness? Take a drive and experience the outdoors and rugged countryside of England. A lovely park to visit and enjoy a picnic lunch is Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a two-hour drive northeast of Manchester. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is home to many Avantgarde, abstract figurines amidst sheep grazing on the grassy plains. In the words of a Bollywood aficionada, I felt like I was in a Yash Chopra movie! You can easily spend up to half a day wandering through the walking trails in this park. Further north of Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the quaint Victorian village of Saltaire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to house a cotton mill. Yorkshire and Saltaire are perfect countryside getaways from all the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced city life.

Indonesia Diaries: Yogyakarta – A Confluence of Cultures and Customs

Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogjakarta, abbreviated Jogja) is a city in Central Java with a rich heritage and history. The cultural cradle of Indonesia where Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim influences combine and coexist, Jogja is known for the famous Prambanan and Borobudur temples but there is also much more to explore in this diverse town. One thing to note about these temples and structures is that the steps are large and climbing them requires a significant amount of strength; it is important to take breaks and make the journey up slowly. Without further ado, here are the top attractions I checked out during my time in Jogja.

  1. Prambanan Temple

Built in the 9th century, Prambanan Temple is a multi-structure compound consisting of temples devoted to Hinduism’s Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – and their vahanas or vehicles – Hamsa, Garuda, and Nandi, respectively. Unlike most parts of the world where there are no places of worship for Brahma, Prambanan has a special place dedicated to this Creator. Unfortunately, the Hamsa and Garuda statues are missing so these temples are empty, which is surprising considering Garuda is the national emblem of Indonesia.

2.  Ratu Boko

A set of archaeological ruins near Prambanan, Ratu Boko is a great place to see Jogja’s sunset. Atop a hill, there are remains of a well that was used by Hindus and Buddhists back in the 8th and 9th centuries. Legend has it that they considered it very lucky, hence the name “Amerta Mantana” (amerta as in amritam, which means nectar in Sanskrit).

Sunset at Ratu Boko

Sunset at Ratu Boko

3.  Mount Merapi

The most active volcano in all of Indonesia, Mount Merapi is about an hour from Jogja by road. There are various options to explore the volcano and the surrounding area. For hikers and trekkers, there are hiking tours up the volcano that begin around 2am and arrive at the top of the mountain in time to catch a beautiful sunrise. A milder option is the Lava Tour, in which you ride in a jeep with a driver to see the villages that were destroyed by Merapi’s 2010 eruption, emergency bunker for protection, and a museum showcasing objects from homes affected by the volcanic eruptions. Fair warning: the jeep ride is bumpy and not for the light-hearted. Unfortunately, it was raining when we went so the views of the volcano weren’t great and the jeep ride was even more of an adventure. But if you’re into geology and nature, definitely don’t miss Mount Merapi! To get good views of the volcano, it is best to go early in the morning before clouds cover the top of the mountain.

4.  Borobudur Temple

UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Indonesia, Borobudur Temple is a 9-level structure with over 500 Buddha statues. Utilizing a combination of square and circular architecture, the bottom three levels of the temple represent the world of desire, the middle three the sphere of name and form, and the top three the world of formlessness. Each Buddha statue shows him holding a different mudra or hand gesture, representing various Buddhist values, including peace and liberation. Despite being hit by earthquakes and bombings, Borobudur Temple has remained mostly intact, just like Buddha remained unaffected by society.

5.  Batik Factory

Batik is the original textile of Indonesia and each island has its own style of Batik. In Yogyakarta, all Batik is handmade and we had the opportunity to visit a Batik processing factory, where we learned about the different stages of making it. Batik production involves tracing the design, going over it with multiple layers of wax, dyeing the cloth, removing the wax, and drying the final product. It takes about 2-3 weeks to produce one garment of Batik.

6.  Ramayana Ballet

If you’re coming to Yogyakarta, definitely try to catch a Ramayana Ballet performance near Prambanan Temple. During the dry season (May thru October), the play is held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening at 7:30pm in the outdoor theatre with the Prambanan Temple backdrop, but since we went during monsoon, it was inside the Trimurti Theatre. The play showcased various episodes from the Javanese Ramayana, from Rama and Sita (pronounced and written Shinta) getting married to her kidnapping to their reunion at the end. The production value of this show is extremely high and naturally so because the artists have been performing it for over 30 years! The highlights of the play were Ravana’s expressions, the fight scenes and stunts (which were totally real and very well-executed), and the use of the entire stage with entrances and exits from all sides. It was also useful that they provided captions on both sides of the stage to guide audience members through the story. Needless to say, this is a show not to miss when in Jogja!

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7.  Sultan Palace

Very few people know that Yogyakarta is still ruled by a Sultan, who serves as the governor of the province. Thus, his palace, situated in the middle of the Yogyakarta town, is open to visitors. Every Sunday from 11am to noon, in the main open square inside the palace, many students of Javanese traditional dance use the space to practice with live gamelan music. It was such a treat to catch a glimpse of their practice session and was reminiscent of the Kalakshetra outdoor atmosphere in Chennai. In general, it might be good to go with a guide inside the palace, as he informed us about various fun facts and gave us a bit of history about the current and previous Sultans.

And now for a fun (slightly Bollywood-related) incident that happened while visiting Borobudur:

When we went to Borobudur, there were many children on field trips from school who were also visiting the temple that day. As we were taking a pradakshina or walking around the structure, a bunch of kids randomly walked to my dad and asked if they could take a picture with him. My mom and I were confused and thought it a bit weird that these kids wanted to take pictures with a stranger, but we hypothesized that perhaps these children had mistaken my father for a famous Bollywood actor so we let him live in the illusion that he thought he was famous. Then they came to me and asked to take pictures with me so I too assumed they had mistaken me for some Bollywood actress and consented for the photos. Afterwards, all the kids came to us with their teacher and introduced themselves as students of an English course in a Central Javanese school. They asked us various questions about Indonesian food, the environment, and (of course) Shah Rukh Khan and other celebs. We came to the realization that these children were probably given an assignment to talk with foreigners at Borobudur to improve their English speaking skills. Whether we were famous or simply an assignment in the kids’ minds, mingling with them and learning more about Indonesia was an unforgettable encounter!

 

Indonesia Diaries: Top 10 Must-See Things in Bali!

My second week in Indonesia took me to the island of Bali, the Indonesian tourist hotspot known for its beautiful beaches, picturesque nature, and Hindu culture. From people with names like “Artha” and “Putra” to statues of Gatotgacha and Kumbakarna all over the island, Bali (in the words of my mother) felt like a journey back in time to ancient India with an Indonesian flavor! As expected there is a lot to do and see in Bali and while I covered quite a bit in my 4-day stay, there is still much to be explored.

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A few things to note:

  • Almost every attraction (including temples) has an entrance fee that usually ranges from Rp 10,000 to Rp 30,000
  • All temples require visitors to be dressed appropriately (i.e. skin covered below the knee – for both men and women). Most temples let visitors borrow sarongs for free (included as part of the entrance fee), while others may require an extra donation for sarongs.
  • Bali is extremely hot. Wear light clothing and comfortable shoes, stay hydrated, and apply sunscreen!

Without further ado, here are the top 10 must-see attractions in and fun facts about Bali!

  1. Tegallalang Rice Terrace

The staple food in almost all of Southeast Asia is rice. What is interesting and famous about the Tegallalang Rice Terrace is the cultivation and growth of rice in a multilevel fashion. This technique not only saves water but also provides a picturesque view of a productive agricultural process. The best view is from the main road across the rice terraces. The road is filled with markets, coffee shops, and painters inspired by nature to create works of art.

Tegallalang Rice Terrace

  1. Kintamani Volcano & Batur Lake

Kintamani is a small town located in central/somewhat northeastern Bali (see map below). While it is a bit of a trek from Ubud and the touristy beach areas in southern Bali, it’s definitely worth the 1.5 to 2-hour drive. For adventure junkies, there are options to hike up the active volcano. However, for those who are less inclined to climb, there are many restaurants with balconies along the main road offering fantastic views of the volcano and lake.

  1. Ubud Art Market

If you’ve been to outdoor markets in Phuket, this is a very similar setup, with small cobblestone pathways (for pedestrians and motorbikes only) lined with shops on both sides. Ubud Art Market has all types of products, from paintings and wooden carvings to sandals and batik clothing. You absolutely have to bargain with the shopkeepers, as they quote exorbitant prices. Typically, start the bargaining process by quoting 50% (or less) of the price they stated; eventually you and the shopkeeper will reach a compromise but it all depends on your persistence and bargaining skills! Shopaholics and tourists looking for nicknacks and souvenirs will love Ubud Art Market! Even if you’re not into shopping very much, stroll through the market to get a good idea of another aspect of Bali’s tourism industry.

  1. Coffee Plantation & Kopi Luwak

Bali, particularly the Kintamani area, is filled with coffee plantations that specialize in many variants of coffee. A particularly interesting type of coffee, called Kopi Luwak or Luwak Coffee, is very famous in Bali. Basically, a baby Luwak (Asian palm civet) is fed coffee beans, which go through the animal’s digestive tract and are ejected as feces. The seeds are then extracted, cleansed, and made into Luwak coffee powder. Supposedly, a reason for doing this is to remove any excess bacteria from the coffee beans before transforming them into coffee powder. Kopi Luwak is extremely expensive and being vegetarian, we didn’t taste it. At the end of the tour, Santi Coffee Plantation offered various teas, coffees, and chocolates to taste, with an extra fee to taste Kopi Luwak. Nevertheless, a coffee plantation tour is definitely recommended for tea and coffee lovers alike!

  1. Taman Ayun Temple

Located in the town of Mengwi, Taman Ayun Temple is a large complex consisting of temple structures in the middle and walking trails with small meditation huts all around. The main temple area is open only to devotees and closed to visitors but you can take a walk around the temple complex. Structured like a garden, Taman Ayun is one of the few temples with both open space and lots of greenery and trees. A beautiful spot for nature photo shoots!

  1. Padang Padang Beach

Known for its appearance in the film Eat, Pray, Love, Padang Padang Beach is one of the cleaner beaches in Bali that is filled with almost exclusively foreigners. Accessing this beach is a bit of a challenge – there is a narrow stairway path that has been carved through the rock cliff and as soon as you come out of it, you can see the pristine white sand and wide expanse of the clear blue ocean. In addition to picturesque nature, Padang Padang Beach is replete with beautiful men and women clad in swimsuits – a great place to spot eye candy!

Padang Padang Beach

  1. Tanah Lot Temple

Tanah Lot is a cliffside temple with multiple shrines. Since it is a highly dangerous area and was high tide when we went, no one was allowed to go to the actual temple structure but depending on the time of day and tide, you may be allowed at the base of the structure. Tanah Lot gets very hot during the day so the best time to visit is early in the morning or late in the evening. The temple faces the west so sunset watching at Tanah Lot is definitely a must on the Bali bucket list!

  1. Krisna Souvenir Shop

Located in the capital city of Denpasar, Krisna is the best one-stop shop for all souvenirs and random nicknacks in Bali. While the quality of goods is not great here, all products are sold at local fixed prices so everything is extremely cheap. Things you find at Ubud Art Market might be seen here at half the price but remember that they may also be half the quality. Essentially, Krisna = Costco + Big Bazaar. Not necessarily an attraction but a must-see if you are on a tight budget or looking for cheap souvenirs in Bali!

  1. Watch a Balinese music/dance performance

What’s a trip to Bali without some cultural arts immersion! There are many opportunities to check out music and dance shows in Bali, especially in the Ubud area. Just like India has many different styles of dance, Bali too has various types, including Kecak, Barong, and Legong. The two shows we saw were Kecak and Fire Dance at Sahadewa Stage and Legong Dance at Taman Pura Saraswati. Both give different flavors of the cultural arts scene in Bali. Kecak and Fire Dance occurs everyday from 6:30-7:30pm at Sahadewa Stage, while Taman Pura Saraswati offers different performances on each night. Shows are generally ticketed and last about 60-90 minutes. For more details, check out my performance review of “Chandra Wirabhuana” at Taman Pura Saraswati!

  1. Pura Tirta Empul

This is a unique temple with a natural spring for devotees to engage in Hindu rituals and cleanse/purify themselves in the holy water. Apparently, Lord Indra created the spring to revive his forces when they were poisoned. Thus, it is believed that Tirta Empul has curative properties and is seen as a fountain of immortality. Since there is quite a bit of history associated with this temple, it would be good to get a guide when visiting this temple just to have an idea of the significance of the rituals the devotees engage in. We saw visitors wearing sarongs and getting into the spring, however it is best to confirm whether visitors are allowed to bathe in the water.

Pura Tirta Empul

As always, for all you Bollywood aficionados, here’s an extra tidbit I learned as I was departing from Bali:

  1. Bali has an Indian radio station.

On our way to the airport, our hotel driver showed us a channel on the radio that plays Bollywood music 24/7 in Bali. As we were exiting the van, the radio station was just starting to play the song “Gerua” from Dilwale! Our driver also mentioned that he saw the film 3 Idiots and really liked it!

Check back soon for more updates on my travels through Indonesia!

Performance Review: “Chandra Wirabhuana” Balinese Dance

On Saturday, January 16, 2016, I attended “Chandra Wirabhauana”, a traditional Balinese dance performance accompanied by live orchestra music. Set in the beautiful outdoor environment of Taman Pura Saraswati Temple’s Lotus Pond in Ubud, Bali, Chandra Wirabhuana was formed in 2000 and performs Balinese music and dance every week at the Lotus Pond. The orchestra consisted of 16 musicians playing a variety of instruments, including gamelan, flute, percussion, gong, and cymbals.

The show began with “Tabuh Liar Samas”, an instrumental piece whose composition was inspired by the beautiful beaches of Kuta in Southern Bali. This was followed by “Tari Penyambutan”, an introductory dance piece similar to a pushpanjali from Indian classical dance repertoire. The three graceful female dancers entered holding plates filled with flower offerings, which they later showered onto the audience.

Legong Dance

The third item was “Kebyar Duduk”, a powerful solo number characterized by dynamic hand and body gestures and sharp eye movements. The male dancer used a fan and flowing cloth from his outfit throughout the dance.

The fourth piece called “Legong Semarandhana” was in the Legong style of dance. It began with pure dance movements, followed by the Hindu tale of Manmatha and his wife Ratih. Manmatha and Ratih are sent to break Lord Shiva’s meditation and do so by striking him with an arrow. In the Balinese version of this tale, when Lord Shiva awakens, he opens his third eye and burns the couple to flames. In this dance, it was very interesting to see a slightly different version of a Hindu story portrayed in a unique style of dance.

“Oleg Tamulilingan”, the fifth item, was a duet describing the courtship between two bumblebees. Representing a Balinese love story, this piece was full of sringara abhinaya and was characterized by cute duet moments and poses.

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Following the bumblebee courtship was “Topeng Tua”, or the Mask Dance. It is typically performed for religious functions and the dancer wearing the mask typically portrays demons or other evil spirits.

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The performance ended with a vibrant number titled “Tari Satya Brasta”. It was based on an excerpt from the Mahabharata in which Karna fights and kills Gatotkacha on the Kurukshetra battlefield. The intricate formations and unique usage of props by all 6 male dancers in this piece was simply phenomenal!

There are many similarities between Balinese dance and styles of Indian classical dance. For example, Balinese dance has certain stances, as well as large, dynamic eye movements, that are similar to Kathakali and Mohiniattam. At the same time, the delicate hand gestures and soft footwork are reminiscent of Manipuri. It is evident that a lot of body control is required to master any style of Balinese dance, be it Legong or Kecak. The musical orchestra complemented the mood of all the dance pieces very well, exaggerating and subduing as appropriate to the story being told. The outdoor setting of Taman Pura Saraswati’s Lotus Pond, while prone to mother nature’s whims and fancies if it decides to rain, is absolutely beautiful, and allows visitors to watch a culturally rich performance beneath the moon and stars.

Definitely don’t miss out on this show if visiting Bali! Chandra Wirabhuana performs every Saturday at 7:30pm in Taman Pura Saraswati in Ubud, Bali. You will certainly be in for a treat!

Indonesia Diaries: Lessons Learned in Jakarta

Southeast Asia is a region of the world that is rich with people, culture, and adventure. Home to its bustling capital city of Jakarta and the popular tourist destination Bali, Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands scattered over the Indian and Pacific Oceans. My first week in Jakarta has been eventful but there certainly will be more adventures to come and stories to tell as I continue to explore this vast landscape.

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Below are some lessons/facts I have learned about this capital city in my first week…

1. Traffic. Traffic. Traffic.

Jakarta is infamous for its constant traffic jams. No matter where you go, there is almost always traffic on the roads of Jakarta, whether it’s morning, afternoon, or evening. Stay calm, be patient, and always plan extra time to go anywhere at any time of day.

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2. Cultural richness.

Indonesian culture and history has traces of influences from various countries and religions, including (but not restricted to) Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Though not a Muslim country by law, Indonesia has the greatest population of Muslims in the world. At the same time, islands like Bali are 90% Hindu, while many Christians are present in the provinces of Papua and Sulawesi. Check out some pics below featuring Indonesia’s diversity…

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3. The importance of language.

Bahasa Indonesia is the official language spoken all over Indonesia and contrary to popular belief, many people in Jakarta do not speak English. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Bahasa is a mix of many different languages, including English, Sanskrit, Malay, and even Spanish (especially in terms of pronunciation)! But don’t be fooled – this language is harder to learn than you think!

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Meaning: How are you madam?

4. Try to use local lingo/terminology when possible.

In light of number 3 above, it might be wise to learn a few words and terms to get around the city comfortably, particularly to tourist attractions. For example, there is a National Monument (very similar to that of Washington DC) in Central Jakarta which is a popular tourist attraction. However, it is likely that taxi drivers will not understand you if you tell them you want to go to the monument. If you say “Monas”, they will immediately know where to take you. Similarly, the National Museum of Indonesia is known to taxi drivers as Museum Gajah because of the elephant statue in front of the building. (Note: In Sanskrit and Bahasa, “Gajah” means elephant – you can see similarities between the two languages).

5. Cross the street like you own it.

Those of you who have travelled to/lived in India will understand what I mean with this one. Crossing the street in Jakarta is typically not a huge issue because of the flyover walkways above main roads and highways. When these don’t exist, however, crossing can be a big challenge (see #1 above). Don’t bother waiting around for a gap in traffic because there won’t be one and you’ll be left waiting forever. Walk with confidence (and safety, of course) and the drivers on Jakarta’s roads will most likely stop for you as you cross.

6. Taxi tips.

While buses also exist, the main form of public transport in Jakarta is taxi (Taksi in Bahasa), of which there are three tiers: blue bird, silver bird, and golden bird. All cars are air-conditioned, and fares run based on meter. There is a minimum fee and likely a long wait if you call for a taxi from your hotel so save money and time by hailing it from the main road – they are readily available. General tip: unless you want a premium expensive Mercedes Benz (silver bird) or limousine (golden bird) experience, always take blue bird – it’s very reasonable and great value for money. There are also motorcycle taxis for single passengers!

Blue Bird Taksi

Blue Bird Taksi

7. People are very kind and apologetic.

Even if you don’t know Bahasa, Indonesian people are very nice and willing to help you. Interestingly, they are also super apologetic (perhaps a cultural behavior characteristic of this region?) You may hear them apologize before repeating your order back to you at a restaurant or even for things that may not be in their control, like the weather (this was the case with one particular tour guide I had recently). In any case, the hospitality and kind-hearted nature of Indonesian people here have made Jakarta a very pleasant experience thus far.

For those of you who follow my blog for Bollywood things, here’s another tidbit thrown in just for you:

8. Taxi drivers know about India and Bollywood.

On our way to the Embassy of India, my mother and I were trying to explain/figure out the location for the building. Out of the blue, our taxi driver casually threw out names like “Shah Rukh Khan” and “Kajol” and even mentioned that he saw Dilwale because his wife is a Kajol fan. Needless to say, they loved the film! (Missed my review of Dilwale? Click here to read it!)

Tune in next week for more updates from my travel adventures!