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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Top 8 Underrated Travel Destinations

New York City, Rome, and Bangkok are amazing places to travel. There is so much to see and do in these cities, and all sorts of information available for planning a trip there (and many other cities on the same scale), but sometimes we want to try something new, go somewhere equally interesting, but perhaps not as well-known. I’m a big fan of this type of travel, the less expected places where I usually learn more from the locals themselves than any possible book or website. If you also like exploring lesser-known destinations or just want to try something new, here is my list of 8 underrated travel destinations that I think everyone would fall in love with.

#8 Milwaukee, WI

20479485_10214176655838668_1628109147533371960_n (1)Okay, I realize Milwaukee is not the most glamorous or exotic city on anyone’s list, but hear me out. This smallish city, famous for its breweries and cheese, is only about an hour north of Chicago. Perhaps because of this, it can sometimes be overshadowed by the fame of its neighbor; however, in addition to the flavorful brews and delicious cheese curds, the city also lies along Lake Michigan with a river running straight through its center (sound familiar?). It also has a very strong European influence, which can be seen in the architecture and abundance of towering cathedrals. It might be less than half the size of Chicago (and about half as expensive!), but this city has been modernizing in a way that would make any European enthusiast proud. Many historical neighborhoods have been beautifully restored, the additions of a city Riverwalk and a new park have livened up the outdoor scene, and if you’re brave enough to endure the temperatures, the city is absolutely breathtaking in the winter.

Things to see/do: walk along the Milwaukee Riverwalk, test out some local beers at one of the many breweries (I recommend Lakefront), eat the squeaky cheese curds (available everywhere!), and if you’re there in winter, head to a bar for tailgating and transportation to one of the state’s football games.

 

#7 Kiev, Ukraine

13775957_10210260440975744_9077903166833460651_n (1)The capital city of Ukraine has had a bit of a bumpy ride over the past few decades, but that isn’t so evident when traipsing around the city as an excited tourist. Although Ukraine is not in the EU yet, you’ll find many of the same European conveniences backpackers and travelers alike have come to expect: wonderful public transportation, many downtown hostels and hotels, and a slough of monuments, churches, and parks to wander around. The city is known for its monasteries and domed, Orthodox churches, but I remember it most for it’s extremely cheap and delicious food! Most signs are in Cyrillic (like the Russian alphabet), which I think adds greatly to the city’s charm, but if you’re worried about language skills, the English spoken is quite common and understandable, especially by the younger generation.

Things to do/see: visit the caves and monastery at Pechersk-Lavra, have some Chicken Kiev and varenyky (a local dumpling), marvel at the ornate metro stations, and make the climb to Sky Park, where you can zip line across the river.

 

#6 Huangshan, China

23658757_10215123462988255_8497914411745216999_n (1)“Huang-what?”, you might be asking yourself. Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is not particularly well-known outside of China, except perhaps by avid hikers or mountaineers. However, this city and the mountain it takes its name from are spectacular places for anyone to visit. Lying about 4 hours west of Shanghai (by train), Huangshan is a destination that really has it all: beautiful nature, historical sites, and modern shopping. It might not be one of the largest cities in China (or even close), but it’s still pretty large from my perspective, with a population of 1.5 million. Just outside the city, accessible by bus are the mountains (to the north) and the preserved ancient towns of Hongcun and Xidi (to the northwest). All are worth a visit, and will remind people why China is often referred to as a traveler’s dream.

Things to do/see: wander around Hongcun and Xidi marveling at the bizarre street foods, hike Huangshan itself (or take a cable car up and hike down), shop for souvenirs and local teas on Tunxi Old Street, and eat some local Huizhou dishes, including the famous noodles.

 

#5 Skopje, Macedonia

13438928_10210125980614319_195783375429514471_n (1)Known officially as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Macedonia is a small country in southern Europe that most people wouldn’t be able to pick out on a map. The capital city of Skopje, lies in the north of the country and is completely surrounded by mountains, giving it spectacular views from every angle. The city was heavily influenced by ancient Greece, which you can easily see in the large stone bridges and plethora of white columns, but it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russia) and also claims one of the largest numbers of mosques in Europe: talk about a melting pot! The culture there is a unique mix all seeming to revolve around food, the incredibly refreshing šopska salad and potent rakija (locally produced alcohol) for example. While winter brings heavy snowfall to this mountain city, the summers can also be pretty steamy. If you’d like to split your time in the city with time in-touch with nature, a city bus can take you about an hour outside of town to the beautiful canyons around the Vardar river.

Things to do/see: take a ride to Matka canyon, spend an evening in Macedonian Square watching the fountain lights, try the šopska salad, and walk up to the Kale Fortress for panoramic views of the city and mountains.

 

#4 Bergen, Norway

1240561_10208510062337372_7927716375680727965_n (1)Ah, Norway! Land of trolls, fjords, and the midnight sun. When I hear people planning a trip to Norway, usually Oslo and other cities in the southern part of the country are the first to be mentioned. However, I would much rather choose Bergen, a little further north, nestled into the fjords on the country’s west coast. This city in winter or summer is a great jumping off point for further exploration of the fjords, but it has enough to do in town that you might not even want to leave! From town squares and colorful row houses to funiculars and downhill sledding, Bergen has a lot to offer for those who prefer to spend their time on activities that don’t break the bank. However, when the time comes to spend a little cash, a great way to do it is on the food! There is a wide variety available here from traditional Scandinavian specialties to a TGIFridays; the choice is really up to you!

Things to do/see: take a fjord tour (I’m usually not a “tour person”, but these are worth it), ride the funicular up Mount Fløyen and sled down, sample extremely fresh seafood at the Fisketorget market, and walk around the quaint Bryggen Wharf.

 

#3 Savannah, GA

17904108_10212977098970496_5512127965221632585_n (1)Another destination from my homeland (home state even) is Savannah, GA. This seaside city is always equated with the “old south”: plantation houses, buttery foods, and a slower pace of life come to mind. However, this city is a lot more than that. It can cater to a younger crowd nowadays with its bar streets and beaches, but there are also tree lined avenues, old cemeteries, and little antique shops that are great for the traveler with varied interests. Savannah is not as famous as perhaps New Orleans or Charleston, but maybe for that reason, I found it to be less affected by outside influences. It is a city that it uniquely itself: beautiful and eclectic, much like many Georgians I know.

Things to do/see: have brunch at any of the restaurants along River Street (I recommend Huey’s), have a drink or two at one of the bars on Broughton Street, amble under the large oak trees at any one of the numerous parks, head over to Tybee Island for the lighthouse and beautiful beaches.

 

#2 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

22448427_10214825952870688_7496229601924814073_n (1)One of my more recent discoveries, Ulaanbaatar is an unexpected gem of the travel world. A unique combination of different cultures set in a landscape like no other I’ve seen. The city itself has plenty of sights and traditional Mongolian activities and foods, but just outside the city is a completely different side of life in one of the largest landlocked countries in the world. A nearby national park gives breathtaking views of the mountains and vast plains of Mongolia, while wild horses and yak stand on the side of the road grazing in the fields or drinking from the winding rivers. It’s a bit more rugged outside the city, but no less friendly. Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked highly by travelers who are lucky enough to go there. The lamb dumplings alone are worth the journey!

Things to do/see: walk around the ger district, view a temple or two at Gandantegchinlen Monestary, watch the wedding parties taking pictures in Sükhbaatar Square, try a modern twist on Mongolian food at Modern Nomad, and make the trek out to Terelj National Park.

 

#1 Tricity, Poland

13417619_10209884679581944_5470284272553681414_n (1)This destination (and the whole country really) is near and dear to my heart. I spent a year living in Poland and made it my job to explore every corner of the country. What I found was a series of destinations that many people gloss over in favor or Warsaw or Krakow, the more international locales. However, when I think of places to visit in Poland, my mind first goes to its Baltic Coast. Just across the Baltic sea from Sweden, Poland’s “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia sits about four hours north of Warsaw (by car). These cities have an incredibly interesting history, which has allowed them to retain their distinct and varied atmospheres. Gdansk, formally German, has an industrious feel, an international airport, and an impressive city center. Sopot is a resort town with Europe’s longest wooden boardwalk and many fancy shops and hotels. And finally Gdynia, the most Polish of the three, boasts beautiful beaches, several hilly parks, and a ferry to Hel and back. Who wouldn’t want to to see all of that?!

Things to do/see: take the ferry to Hel for the seal sanctuary or the beaches, walk the pier in Gydina to see sailboats alongside pirate ships, watch local artists working in Gdansk’s Long Market, and in winter, enjoy a cup of grzane piwo (mulled beer) at any one of the pop-up Christmas markets.