Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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Southeast Asia and Chinese New Year

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Riding in a songthaew

There are so many things to love about being a teacher, but one that always stands out (even to non-teachers) are the breaks we often get. For me, as a university teacher in China, I was lucky enough to have a little over six weeks off in between semesters this year! Unfortunately, that’s not the norm (it just so happened that Chinese New Year fell quite late this year), but however it happened, I’m so glad it did because Tucker and I were able to take one incredible trip last month! In fact, this was our most involved trip to date, as it linked together several professional events in addition to the typical, touristy ones and ultimately involved us being away from home for 30 days. The planning was…interesting, as neither of us had ever been to Southeast Asia before, I had to be prepared for several work events throughout the trip, and it happened to take place over the biggest holiday of the region. Basically, we had no idea how it would turn out, but we were excited to find out!

Thailand

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View from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Our first stop was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was the location for the East Asia/Pacific Fellows Midyear Meeting. I’m actually a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of Chiang Mai before finding out that was where the midyear would be because it is a city that should definitely be on any travel-nerd’s radar! It’s located in Northern Thailand, not too far from the Myanmar border and is a fairly popular location for backpackers. Being solidly in Southeast Asia, and inland no less, it was quite warm even in January. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) when we flew in, which was quite a shock when the week before we were in Harbin, China chilling out at -15F (-25C), but the overall atmosphere of Chiang Mai was anything but stifling. I read a bit about Thailand and Thai culture before we left, and one of the things that stuck out while we were there was the peacefulness and serenity of the people. Due to a largely Buddhist population, the people of Thailand try to conduct their lives with as little conflict as possible. Surprisingly, this was something that was easily felt and observed even in our few short weeks in the country.

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Sharing some yummy treats

Honestly, there are so many things I could share about our time in Chiang Mai! Other than getting to meet up with all the EAP Fellows again, bond through the sharing of meals, drinks, and stories, and attend/present at the exceptional Thai TESOL conference, we were able to fit in some of the most incredible cultural experiences as well! We took a Thai cooking class, something that was extremely out of my comfort zone (although I think I held my own! My Pad Thai was delicious, and I didn’t catch anything on fire!), we visited two elephant sanctuaries and learned more about the history and treatment of elephants in the region, and we walked in and around countess wats picking up phrases and gestures that we’ll likely use for quite awhile (even if they’re a little out of place in China). Ultimately, it was a busy, but extraordinarily rewarding week.

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Floating market

After the meeting and conference were checked off our list, we headed down to Bangkok via an overnight train. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love overnight trains! This is the sixth we’ve been on, and I have yet to be disappointed! Such a great experience, very affordable, and the stories are fantastic! I should write a “Stories from Overnight Trains” post at some point, but for now, I’ll focus on Bangkok. Most people already know about this Thai city; it’s the capital and a jumping off point for many destinations in SE Asia. I’ll admit that at first, I thought it was just another big city: similar to Beijing, New York, etc. However, the longer we were there, the more I came to like it. There is truly something for everyone – in fact, almost too much of everything! We had a great time with the vast array of transportation options, took in some sights (unique skyscrapers, centuries-old wats, and even a lunar eclipse), and, of course, we also ate a lot of delicious food! That is, until Tucker had some cashew apples from a street vendor – that wasn’t a pleasant 24 hours for him!

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Incredible detail!

Cambodia

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Sunrise over Angkor Wat

From Bangkok, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the nearest city to the famous Angkor Wat complex. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Angkor Wat mentioned in English language textbooks (usually in the chapter on “travel”), and quite possibly because of this, it has long been a place on my must-see list. Now that I have finally seen the breathtaking Angkor Wat in person, I can honestly say that the pictures do not even come close to doing it justice. When we were in Europe I was always so impressed with how old things were. For Americans, 300 years old seems crazy – in Europe it’s normal, in Asia, it’s downright modern. The temples and statues in the complex were built over 900 years ago, a time that is difficult for me to fully imagine outside of the strings of dates and events I studied for university exams. Seeing it in person, and actually being allowed to walk on it, touch it, and understand the amount of effort it must have taken to build, was all truly amazing.

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The place to be in Siem Reap

The city of Siem Reap was really awesome as well although very different from temples of Angkor Wat. Instead of pushy monkeys, we encountered pushy tuk-tuk drivers (touristy areas definitely have their drawbacks). However, there’s a really fun Pub Street at the center of town, where we tried local Cambodian dishes like Amok (a delicious coconut and lime curry dish) and Lok Lak (a peppery beef salad) and drank 50 cent draft beers several nights during our stay. Siem Reap is actually where we found ourselves for the Super Bowl this year, and luckily Tucker quickly sleuthed out, a nearby, American-owned bar that was hosting a party…at 6am (which is when the game began for us). So, of course, we had unlimited pizza, wings, and beer (maybe a little too much) for breakfast, and made some new American, Canadian, and German friends while watching the Eagles pull out a win. Unfortunately the owner was from Boston, so it was a bit of a hard loss for him. I’m just thankful it wasn’t as doom and gloom as last year’s gathering in Atlanta. Still hurts Tucker a bit to talk about it.

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Mekong sunrise

After Siem Reap, we took another bus down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My intention for visiting Phnom Penh was to attend and present at the Cam TESOL conference that was being held there, which was a fantastic experience, but we definitely enjoyed more than just the conference and further Fellow company. We took many breezy walks along the Mekong River, had hour long Khmer massages for $8, and again, ate some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! France actually has a long history with Cambodia, and it seems like their culinary flare has definitely rubbed off on the Cambodian population. One restaurant we stumbled upon, La Provence, was a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but the food we had there was absolutely incredible! There were no menus (we ordered off a chalkboard) and everything was in French, but it was easily my favorite meal of the trip. It’s been a few weeks now, and we’re still regularly talking about it.

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Wat Phnom

Hong Kong

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Aviary friend

Now that my professional duties were officially over and the holidays (Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year) were upon us, we headed to our next location: Hong Kong. We flew into Hong Kong and immediately felt the Britishness of it. Not only were we back on the left side of the road (Thailand also drives on the left), but we took a double-decker bus from the airport to our hostel. I’d like to say that I refrained from speaking in a British accent, but that would totally be a lie – I immediately went into Harry Potter mode when I saw the buses…Tucker looked a little ashamed. But in addition to the British influence, we also felt like we were getting closer to home as we listened to any and all announcements in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. HK was one of the places Tucker was looking forward to the most, so he lead the way as we wound our way around the hilly island. Hong Kong Park with its jungle-y feel, beautiful water features, and unexpected aviary was a highlight for us. As was the double-decker tram that ran the length of the city. We had lots of plans for our time in Hong Kong. Many of them were successful (like eating and drinking all the HK specialties, taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland), but as to be expected, some things didn’t quite go as planned.

Chinese New Year

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Victoria Harbor

We really didn’t give much thought to Chinese New Year as we were planning our trip because, honestly, we didn’t really know what it would be like either way, so we figured we’d just wing it. However, perhaps we should have thought a little more about it…something about hindsight, right? Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China (including Hong Kong), and unlike our New Year, it’s not really a one day event. Rather, the whole country prepares for days (by shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) and then takes several days off – all together, all 1.3 billion of them (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), but really, a lot of people were “on vacation” just like we were. Because of the larger-than-usual number of people on holiday in Hong Kong, there were a few things on our list that we opted to forego (rather than spending way too much time or money). This included riding the tram up to Victoria Peak and taking a trip over to the island of Macau for some Portuguese architecture and maybe a casino or two. I guess we’ll just have to take another trip down to Hong Kong soon!

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Hong Kong street market

Other than the crowds of happy, holiday-enjoying people, we saw many Chinese New Year markets pop-up. These markets sold all sorts of festival treats like candied Hawthorne, roasted corn, and cotton candy. They also had booths set up where students (presumably for an economics class) sold different New Year novelty items (stuffed animals, pinwheels, t-shirts, etc,). We were surprised to see that about a fourth of each market was filled with various plants and flowers, which we now know are common gifts to bring to a New Year’s Eve dinner/reunion. Not only the markets, but the entire city was decorated for the New Year – red lanterns were everywhere along with traditional paper cuttings, dog statues (we’ve transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog, by the way), and many signs wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. It was very much like the lead up to Christmas, including a parade! On New Year’s Eve we were lucky enough to catch a parade on the Kowloon side of HK. There were some differences to be sure, but more similarities, I think: large balloon animals, floats with glitter and bright lights, marching bands, etc. We even saw the dancing Chinese dragons! It was really awesome to be so immersed in the festivities – I had thought it would be a little boring for us, as the holiday is said to be very family-oriented (and mostly celebrated at home), but being in Hong Kong and hearing all the “Gong Xi Fa Cai”s, I felt like we were in the middle of everything!

Guangzhou

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Adorable dim sum

The last stop on our itinerary was a little further up the Pearl River Delta, in the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou used to be called Canton and is China’s third largest city. It’s known for it delicious food, including dim sum (a plethora of bite-sized foods like dumplings and steamed buns often served with all you can drink tea). Now that the holiday was over, we naively thought things would return to normal. We were quickly proven wrong when we arrived at our pre-booked hostel and were told that they didn’t have a room for us because they oversold our room for the holiday. Fortunately, we had something similar happen in Ukraine and totally didn’t panic. We used their WiFi (they were really kind and happily celebrating the New Year, giving us cherry tomatoes and candies to snack on while we figured this out), and we were able to secure a hotel room not too far away. Although many stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday (it’s actually still pretty unclear what sorts of things remained open and when the others would do so – we’re now a week into the New Year and still many things are closed by us!), we were able visit a beautiful orchid garden, treat ourselves to some amazing dim sum, and watch the light show on the skyscrapers from a bridge over the Pearl River. We had a lovely, albeit short, time in Guangzhou, but luckily it’s only a train ride away!

So after 30 days, almost 5000 miles traversed, and innumerable memories made, we made it back to Hefei in one piece. I truly can’t say it enough: I am so grateful for the opportunities Tucker and I have been afforded these past few years. I’m so appreciative of the time we’ve been able to spend together, the people we’ve been able to meet, and the information and perspective we are continually gaining through these experiences. Now it’s time to start the next semester, and I can’t wait to hear what all my students did during their six week break!

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Best travel partner ever!