Thursday, October 20, 2016

Diving in Brunei

WOOT WOOT COUNTRY 40! Yep, you read that right, folks. I went to Brunei last week and it was my 40th country. Considering my goal was 30 countries by the age of 30, I think I'm doing pretty well for myself, a couple years ahead of schedule here. My travels are going to be slowing down in the near future though, as I'm Hong Kong based for the next 8 weeks until I go home to Florida for winter break.

On my recent dive trip to my 40th country- Brunei

I didn't see much of Brunei, to be honest. My goal was to complete two more advanced scuba diving specialities, so I wasn't too concerned with what was happening on land. After googling 'diving shipwrecks asia,' Brunei kept coming up as a place to go. Considering there are only two dive shops in the whole country, my choices were limited, and I quickly narrowed it down to Oceanic Quest Dive Shop.

Oceanic Quest Dive Shop

This company uses smaller boats for a more personal experience

The crew at Oceanic Quest goes above and beyond in making sure you are comfortable and having a dive experience to your liking. Every meal at the dive shop was a feast, and when I got sick one day, the shop owner even went to get me medicine while I was out on the boat. I don't have any underwater photos because I can't be bothered to worry about a camera when I am underwater. Trust me, I have a lot of photos in my memory that aren't going anywhere any time soon.

Bruneian food is super yummy

The living room at Oceanic Quest is great 
for lazing around after a long day of diving

Oceanic Quest Dive Shop is in a town called Muara, and it's quite isolated. A 30 minute drive from the main city, Bandar Seri Begawan, Muara feels residential and quiet. The only reason to go there would be to dive, and it is well worth the trip. The coast beyond Brunei has a handful of shipwrecks ranging from World War II to three years ago!

Ukeing it up between dives

Descending upon my first shipwreck rising out of the ocean floor was truly awe inspiring. I spent four days diving a bunch of different wrecks and reefs, and did my specialty certifications for Enriched Air and Wreck diving while I was there, along with many fun dives. Here are some detailed descriptions of the shipwrecks. There are more dive sites and wrecks that aren't listed in that article as well! Each wreck has its own personality, so you want a couple days to dive them all! Brunei isn't a backpacker destination due to its no-alcohol policy and lack of nightlife, but if you are outdoorsy there are also lots of jungle, mangrove, and water sport activities you can do. I found it to be a subtly beautiful, welcoming place to travel, and was pleasantly surprised with the whole experience.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Decaying Grandeur of Yangon

While in Myanmar, Yangon was my home base. It's is a city of stark contrasts. The meaty sizzle of grilled chicken on the street draws you in, and then the overwhelming stench of raw sewage turns you off. A palatial colonial mansion looms over the street, but upon closer inspection, it is on the brink of collapse after years of disrepair. The city is loud, deafening even, but the gold encrusted pagodas are a vacuum of serenity and stillness.

On a train to Yangon

Sule Pagoda, downtown Yangon

Also Sule Pagoda

The traffic we faced to get anywhere in the city

The crummy sidewalks are all that lies between you 
...and flowing raw sewage 

Yangon will attack your senses and waken them up to a level you never thought possible and then bludgeon them to death. There are sights to behold everywhere, starting with the gorgeous colonial buildings in downtown. Many days could be spent wandering in and out of them. My most special moment in Yangon was ducking into an old colonial palace with original British tiling to escape the rain. As we wandered, we found both an art gallery and a hallway space that had been turned to a cafe. Grilled cheeses were resting on coals, the dishes were washed in buckets on the floor, and vines crept into the open air passages. Evan and I sat there sipping our coffees with huge smiles on our faces- the specialness of this place required no verbal confirmation.

Colonial architecture downtown

The interior of a colonial mansion

Courtyard in a colonial building

So much historical detail to take in with the buildings

Man vs. Nature in downtown Yangon

The food in Yangon is not for the faint of heart. Maybe the whole city is not for the faint of heart, but that's another story. Burmese food is very strong flavored- lots of pickled and fermented salads, ripe fish pastes, and mysterious sauces and herbs. When you order one meal, ten tiny bowls of various broths and sauces are placed in front of you, so that you can mix and match and build a flavor to your liking. At some point between train food and street food, I ended up with a bad case of food poisoning. So bad in fact that I ended up in a clinic where I was quickly hooked up to an IV and pumped full of antibiotics, painkillers, and muscle relaxants.

This meal was in Hpa-An, but it was my favorite in Myanmar

Street skewers on 19th Street

Ready to pounce on some Burmese hotpot

Typical lunch spread in Myanmar

Some more Burmese street food

Was it amoebas? Parasites? Who knows!

I'd highly recommend staying at Space Boutique Hostel. It was affordable, friendly, clean, and in a great location! The food next door at Nilar Biryani is half the reason to stay at Space Boutique. I stayed here twice, and each time I could leave the door with no plan and just wander the streets of downtown Yangon for hours.  Visiting 19th Street in the evening was a highlight, as was the Yangon Walking Tour. I was probably in Yangon for about a week total, and I never ran out of things to do.

Visit some Buddhas and temples and wear the 
local longyi clothing while you're at it

Check out the streets and streets of amazing architecture

Push your taste buds to new limits with some
Burmese street food

Rangoon Tea House in Yangon is an oasis of modernity

Monday, October 3, 2016

Should You Travel to Myanmar?

I was at first concerned about traveling to Myanmar at all given their history in the 20th century as a brutal regime. Oppression, human rights abuses, censorship, and torture are what came to mind when I thought of Myanmar. Then I read The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, which didn't help the situation. Despite all of that, something about the country intrigued me. Aung San Suu Kyi at least was a beacon of hope, and the government had relaxed a lot in recent years.

Visiting temples and pagodas in Yangon

Travel boycotts can sometimes backfire, as with people refusing to visit North Carolina because of an anti-transgender bill there. This shows a lack of solidarity with those in need of visible support! Exposure to other cultures and perspectives can only open a place up (at least, this is what I told myself in visiting Myanmar). By refusing to visit, you are inflicting a blanket punishment upon people who had no say in the policy that you are protesting. 

Inle Lake in Central Myanmar

My approach would be to go for it. How better to learn about injustice or oppression than first hand? Engage locals in conversation, choose where you spend your money wisely. Support local businesses that align with your ideology. If you disagree with a government's policies and you are in a position to speak up, do so! Letters or phone calls to a politician's office are effective, as are awareness raising campaigns or straight up protests.

Bagan at sunset

In Myanmar, most of the locals seemed to laugh off their history, or at least openly joke about it with an undertone of disdain. No monk, taxi driver, or guide that I met could help from commenting on their government's sordid past, which I think shows huge progress for the country. The Burmese people I met were as friendly as the people I encountered in Albania, and more than once I was scooped off the street when I looked lost, only to be escorted to my destination by someone claiming to have nothing better to do. While they had good reason to be on their guard, this just wasn't the reality.

Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon

So please, by all means, go to Myanmar and invest in their future. Buy handmade crafts, have long conversations with locals if they'll let you, eat street food, take public transportation, and immerse yourself in all it has to offer. The local people should not be punished because they were victims of an authoritarian state for decades. Many of them have suffered enough, and it's finally their time to reveal themselves on an international stage.

Train ride from Mawlamyine to Yangon

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My First Cat Cafe

Heart set on shopping for some of that particular Korean style sensibility, we headed for Myeong-dong district in Seoul. But something caught my eye! 'CAT CAFE!' I yelled and pointed! And indeed, it was. A coffee shop overflowing with kitties of all shapes and sizes. Not for the allergic or immune to cuteness, we ended up spending a good portion of the afternoon in Goyangi Noriteo Cat Cafe.

Stylish kitty at the Cat Cafe

Everywhere you look, a cat

Upon walking in to Goyangi Noriteo, a giant fluffball greeted us by snorting in our direction and informing us of its presence with a huff. There was a wall identifying each of the cats, including those that were out of commission due to 'business matters.' Some of the cats frolicked around with lacy collars as if out of a Shakespearan sonnet, others hid in various boxes, tunnels, or corners, just out of reach of the enthusiastic children manhandling the cats with a bit too much gusto.

The first thing you see upon entering

Sadly didn't get to meet this guy as he was very busy

Sure, they serve typical cafe fair. Iced teas, cappucinos, etc. That's irrelevant, though. Because here you have a cat's playground open to the public where most of your time will be happily spent cuddling and playing rather than sipping or nibbling.

Hidden cat's tail gave him away

Looking up towards the ceiling

Cat cafes have quite the reputation all over Asia, but this was my first experience seeing as I am allergic to cat dander and never wanted to risk imminent hives. I had taken an antihistamine that morning and was feeling of a strong disposition though, and this opportunity just seemed to fall in our laps.

Cats, cats, everywhere!

This cat is expressing his dominance over the cleaning supplies

The cats were definitely well cared for and happy at this particular cat cafe. Toys and catnip were abundant, and the kitty playgrounds sprawled from the floor to the ceiling. They perched on shelves, on refrigerators, on humans, where ever they felt like it, really. Playful, sleepy, or affectionate, there were options for every type of cat imaginable, and I couldn't help but sing, 'jellicles can and jellicles do, jellicles do and jellicles can...' as if T.S. Eliot had written Cats about that very cafe.

Magical Mister Mistoffelees?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Seoul Sisters

For the long weekend of the mid-autumn festival in Hong Kong, I ended up in Seoul with a couple girlfriends. The trip was haphazardly planned in a way, one friend booked flights, a couple of us booked different hotels figuring we could cancel the rejects last minute, and we had a shared Google Doc where we threw up information about stuff that interested us in the city. In the end though, we followed our gut each day (especially to find some tasty eats), and didn't ultimately rely on set plans or reservations at all.

Korean banchan breakfast

Our first Korean bbq meal

Street snacks in Myeong-dong

More grilled meats mmmm

Seoul was stylish in a completely different way from Hong Kong or Singapore or any other big, relatively wealthy Asian city that I have been to. And affordable! The receipt for cocktails in a fancy lounge one night surprised us as we had expected to pay Hong Kong rates. Food and fashion were cheaper as well. I ended up coming home with extra cash in my pocket, which is a rarity for me on the road (I've been known to scrape the bottom of the barrel at the end of a trip abroad).

Basement lounge for a fancy cocktail in Hongdae
Bukchon village is perfectly preserved

Posing in the summer palace

Grand architecture in a heritage site

The neighborhood we stayed in was called Hongdae, and in particular we ended up at the cutest freaking guesthouse called Space Torra that I would highly recommend to anyone traveling to Seoul. It's a big old house with a cozy living room area, ready to use kitchen, and charm galore. The surrounding neighborhood is home to the Gyeongui line forest park, where we spent multiple afternoons sprawled out in the grass chatting to locals and sharing snacks and beers, and popping in and out of quirky coffee shops.

Our guesthouse, Space Torra

The cute patio of Space Torra

Supporting coffee shops near our guesthouse

Yet another coffee shop in the neighborhood

Our meandering around Seoul took us to palaces, parties, and parks, from rap battles in the street to steamy spas. Cat cafes, food markets, and trendy Korean department stores drew us in, as well as art museums and traditional villages. And this was all in 3 days!

Street performers in Hongdae

A food market downtown

With a South Korean guard at a historical palace

Walking along a stream in the middle of the city

We decided pretty early to have some fun dancing around the city, which you can check out in this ridiculous video below (note: it won't play on phones because of copyright rules, computers only).