Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bloody Blistering Beach Break

For our first weekend back in Hong Kong, my friends and I decided to hike out to Tai Long Wan. Sure, it was a hot weather warning (95 degrees!!) but it's only a 45 minute hike down a hill to the first beach, and then another 30 minutes to the second beach, right? WRONG. Due to a landslide blocking taxis from dropping us off at the start of the trail, we added another hour and a half to our hike.

Not a bad view from the trail!

This hike was really beautiful, and despite our crackling skin and parched mouths, we were in good spirits because we knew what was waiting for us at the end of the trail. After reaching Sai Wan beach and chugging some cold sodas, we ventured off to the Sheung Luk waterfalls. This was my first time visiting! It was like a cool oasis just begging to be jumped in. Of course I had to scramble up to the top and jump off the highest rock I could find.

Imagine this waiting for you at the end of a scorching hot hike

Finally arriving at the natural pools of Sheung Luk

That would be me jumping off a rock

Then we had an afternoon of laying in the sand, bobbing around in the water, and crushing some Tsing Taos and seafood and noodles right on the beach. The boat ride home was gorgeous enough to remind me that I need to get outdoors more here in Hong Kong. I can't spend every weekend cooped up reading old Brian K. Vaughan comics in the library, although it is a good alternative.

Ham Tin beach with a random man seemingly posing for me

The boat ride home from Ham Tin beach can be booked 
on Sai Kung pier or directly on the beach itself

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Sanctuary in Koh Phangan

I've written about eco-lodges aplenty on here, and now there's one more to add to the list. Up there with the ranks of Black Sheep Inn, Secret Garden, Bahay Kalipay, Playa Escondida, and Earth Lodge, is a tiny tropical oasis on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand called 'The Sanctuary.' After what felt like an eternal bout of food poisoning in Myanmar this summer, a vegan yoga detox retreat was just what I needed.

Hired a local speedboat to jet me out to Haad Tien

First of all, Koh Phangan has a reputation. Heard of the Full Moon Party? Aka Spring Break: Asia Edition? That's on a beach called Haad Rin, which I purposely avoided like the plague. I spent my time scuba diving in Chaloklum on the north end of the island, and then took a boat to Haad Tien, home of The Sanctuary. It's unreachable by road, which adds to its appeal.

Approaching The Sanctuary from the water

Oh. my. god. the characters! Haad Tien is part of a string of 3 beaches that can only be reached by boat and they are a roost of yogis, hippies, healers, and wonderful weirdos. Impromptu beach parties pop up, but the vibe is completely different from what is happening on Haad Rin, only ten minutes away. Everyone in the area always has a big smile on their face (especially those who are on the last day of a fast). Many of the people at The Sanctuary are there for an extended stay, and I wish I had had a month to devote to the area as well, rather than the ten days I spent there. You can tell these peoples connections run deep.

You'd have to try NOT to make friends here

A party on the next beach over- Haad Wai Nam
Ten minute walk from The Sanctuary

I chose to hike around the area a bit and leave The Sanctuary for occasional meals, but many guests just settle in and nest at the retreat. With multiple restaurant options, movie nights, a spa, healer's 'tea temple,' 3 yoga studios, daily meditation classes, open mic events, varying workshops, all on a stunning beachfront property, why leave?

Jungle and beach view from my pedicure chair

This beach pup followed me around for days

My stay there was deeply relaxing and comforting. I woke up every morning in my jungle top bungalow and opened the sliding glass doors to an orchestra of birds. After the 8 AM yoga class, I would lounge around in my hammock reading for awhile before going down to breakfast. During my time there, I took a workshop of feminine creative energy and wrote a slew of new songs on my ukulele. I practiced a style of meditation called yoga nidra that was new to me, but which I have now incorporated into my normal routine.

My luxurious bungalow quickly felt like home

The view every day inspired some epic naps

As the days passed by, The Sanctuary began to feel like home. Guests faces began to familiarize and the staff learned my usual lunch order. The creatures occupying the jungle around my bungalow begin to comfort me. Each day at The Sanctuary is an opportunity to follow your bliss, whether that is to unwind and melt into a lounge chair on the beach, or put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new in a workshop or class. You can opt for a yoga or detox package, or just pick and choose extra sessions as you go.

Some of the salad options

Fish nuggets with cashews at the main Sanctuary restaurant

This was definitely the most luxurious eco-lodge I've stayed in, and I never once felt like I was 'roughing it' at The Sanctuary. Whether you want to go full hippie, or just disconnect from the rush of city life, The Sanctuary surely has something for everyone.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Temples of Bagan

The more I travel, the less unique each place appears to be. A neighborhood in the Philippines might remind me of where I lived in Guatemala. A street in Hong Kong might send me back to a district in Buenos Aires. A pagoda in Japan might be reminiscent of a temple in Taiwan. So I forget sometimes that, no, I haven't seen it all, and human society still has a lot of hidden treasures to reveal.

I was under the impression that Angkor Wat was the most beautiful, special, magical place I would ever be fortunate enough to visit in my lifetime. I was wrong. I had never even heard of Bagan until I started researching travel in Myanmar for this summer and kept coming across images of what looked like Angkor Wat on crack. 2,200 temples on one site? Are you kidding me?!

A high vantage point gives you an idea of how many
temples are scattered everywhere

Sunset over temples

Sunset over temples

Bagan was an ancient city in Central Myanmar that was home to 10,000 temples at its peak in the 11-1200s. The Burmese empire fell when Genghis Khan and the Mongols invaded and the temples fell into a state of disarray. Tourists have a few different little villages to choose from when picking a guesthouse, and it really doesn't matter where you stay. Unlike Angkor Wat, modern and ancient intermingle, so you may be riding your electric bike down a dirt path and see a cell phone store on the same block as a 1,000 year old temple.

E-bikes are readily available for tourists to rent

Temple interiors

Temple interiors

The large temples are hollow and have passageways and tunnels full of statues and art that you can explore. There are so many temples packed into this site that a tourist map is almost unnecessary because you can pick any random street and work your way down it and not have enough time in a week to visit every temple there. There are a few big ones that are actively maintained and have pop up artisan markets targeting tourists, but most of the temples are completely abandoned. This means you will be wandering in and out of bat filled inner sanctums with gold covered Buddhas completely alone. The majority of temples I wandered into, I had to myself. At first it can be eerie but you get used to it.

Massive Buddhas are in most temples

Practicing some yoga in a remote temple

Crawling through a tunnel in a temple

Allowing locals to continue occupying the same place as the temples and live alongside these ancient monuments is kind of genius because they self-maintain the area, seeing as it is their home. The temples have a strict dress code, that for women shoulders and knees must be covered, and all shoes must be removed. One time my friend and I were in a decrepit temple with no one around, we sat on a bench near the entrance and left our shoes on. Within 5 minutes, a random local man popped his head in and told us to take off our shoes. Where did that dude come from?!

A guitarist wandered over to join in our jam session

My ukulele was along for the ride

Taking a breather really high up on a temple

The views in Bagan are stunning no matter where you go. Try to find yourself a temple you can climb up on for sunset or sunrise, or a good vantage point on the Irrawaddy river. I had two full days to explore the temples and I definitely could have used one more day. I also have to mention Moon Vegetarian Restaurant located on the outskirts of Old Bagan because we ended up going there for lunch both days and it was some of the best food I had in Myanmar.

So many unique temples to explore:

Bagan was a highlight of my summer backpacking SE Asia, and could truly provide a transcendental experience if you are there in the right mindset. It's a place of still beauty, and spiritual heaviness like no other.

Moment of peace in a temple

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Depths of the Malaysian Jungle

Earth Lodge in Ulu Muda might be the most unique and personal travel experience I have ever had. For starters, very few people go there. It is not a resort by any means, but a series of cabins deep in the forest (14 kilometers by boat from the nearest jetty). There's nothing really to do except wander for a good animal watching hideout. The only people around are a few jungle guides and maybe one or two other nature enthusiasts. If you're lucky, an Oxford research team investigating the effect of an absence of tigers on Asian jungle food chains might show up and begin spreading their equipment out everywhere.

Check out their website here

Taman Negara is Malaysia's most famous rainforest, and it's located just a few hours south of Ulu Muda. I've done the over-crowded rainforest experience in the Amazon though, and I knew I wanted something different when I began googling 'Asia jungle eco-lodge.' Ulu Muda hasn't yet been pounced on by hoards of tourists because of its more popular southerly sister and it's absolute remoteness.

From Georgetown, Penang, it's an hour drive to the jetty where boats are waiting to take you another hour down a river to Earth Lodge

We spent a lot of time on this beautiful river

For any true nature dork, Ulu Muda is a sight to behold. The forest and surrounded waterways are overflowing with birds, elephants, tapirs, deer, otters, monkeys, wild pigs, crazy reptiles and mind-blowingly huge bugs. You can hike to stunning limestone caves, or salt licks teeming with life. And the best part is, you will often get the feeling that you are the first and only person to step foot in some of these places. The area seems completely undisturbed by human chaos, until you learn that the Thai border is 10 kilometers away and the area is at risk of illegal logging.

The Ulu Muda forest feels immense

Clearly a seasoned hiker here :/

Me at the cave entrance with our guide

The lodge itself was set up as a Field Research Center, and it is truly wild. Electricity comes and goes for a few hours of day, and water has to be pumped up from the river if you want to shower. If a place like this DIDN'T function as environmentally friendly as it does though, it would feel like a fraud. It goes without saying that Earth Lodge is not for the faint of heart. If you consider yourself a real outdoorsman and have no problem slapping on a pair of leech socks and mucking about, it just might be for you.

Typical cabin with a private balcony

Baby turtle sighting!

Earth Lodge wasn't built for me. Or for you. Earth Lodge is there to research and support the surrounding ecosystem. It's authenticity will smack you in the face and leave a trace even when you've oh-so-reluctanctly headed back to civilization because life goes on.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Weekend in Beijing

Labor Day weekend saw myself and a gang of buddies tearing up Beijing for 3 nights. In the end, there were 9 of us who went! I was a bit concerned about traveling with such a large group, but everyone was flexible and open-minded, and we had no problem breaking up into smaller groups to do the stuff we really wanted to do.

The whole weekend gang at a Peking duck joint

Rooftop drinks our first day in the city

Confession: I'm not really interested in traveling in China. Or India for that matter, but that's another story for another day. BUT when you get a couple of friends who used to live in Beijing who say they are going to show you around all their favorite spots, how can you possibly say no?!

My friend Billy used to live around the corner,
how fitting

So our trip was more a drinking and eating tour of the city rather than cultural. I didn't go to Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall. Yikes! Because we were in a little bubble in the Sanlitun neighborhood, I had few encounters with horrifying squatter toilets, and no one spat or defecated in public that I saw, and I missed out on the hutongs. I feel like this was a teaser trip- I know I should go back and try to visit some historical sites.

The pollution was pretty terrible, as you can see

What DID we do? Brunched. Feasted on Peking Duck. Explored art galleries in the 798 district. Danced at one of the oldest night clubs in the city. Ate all you can eat teppanyaki. Drank on a rooftop on Bar Street. Accidentally stayed at a weird sex hotel. Shopped at the silk market. So it wasn't all a wash! But I think DOING stuff wasn't the point of this trip. I went just to spend time with people I like in a new setting, and we really could have been anywhere.

Really on top of our brunching game

While I don't feel a connection to China in general and Beijing didn't strike me as a place I ever want to return to, let alone live, I'm glad I went. I saw the monstrous pollution first hand. I got a sense of the layout of the city and saw its more eclectic side. I encountered people who I had previously thought as oppressed living much more openly than I expected. My time in Asia is winding down; I'm fairly certain I've only got a year left in me, but I'm not sure I would return to Beijing when I've still got places like Seoul and Singapore to check out.  

And finally- the most China manicure ever.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Taiwan With Teens

The students at my school go camping once a year, and I’ve always had a blast chaperoning these trips. This year, I got to supervise an outdoor experience in the mountains of northern Taiwan. Normally on these trips we stay in tents, but I got lucky and was assigned the one trip where the students stay in a mountain lodge.

Orientation activities with the kids

The view from our mountain lodge

5.5k Mountain Lodge is set on Lalashan Mountain near Fuxing, Taiwan. It overlooks a massive valley, and I was reminded of my view in Quito, although at a much lower altitude in Taiwan, the vegetation is much more dense. Each morning the adults would wake up a half hour before the kids to sit on the patio with a view and drink our coffee in silence.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom

Nearby waterfalls we hiked to

Because we use an outdoor education company to arrange all the activities and meals, I pretty much got to tag along and experience the trip with the kids. It was a serious challenge for me! We did a river crossing and a gorge hike, hiked to hot springs and waterfalls, and spent a day on a farm. The kids got to take local Taiwanese dance classes, make mochi, and drink boba tea. You couldn't have packed more fun in a week if you tried.

We put the kids to hard work on a farm for a day

Showing off moves from the Taiwanese dance classes

Our guides rocking their traditional garb

I was with 48 ninth graders on this trip, and they were freaking wonderful. There was teamwork and bonding and the kids encouraged each other to take risks- all of the growth you want to see from a trip like this. It made me think about the idea of teenagers as terrible. Who says teenagers have to have a terrible time adjusting through puberty and be nasty to each other and their parents and have an identity crisis? I'm down with a bit of rebellion of course, my hair was pink in my junior yearbook (sorry 'rents!), but my students in Hong Kong are the most well adjusted teenagers who are genuinely delightful to be around, and it makes me think that the US is doing something wrong.

My group drinking their coveted boba tea on the last day

Anyways, the trip was special as we really formed attachments like a family over the week long camp, and everyone was super bummed to go home. This was my second time in Taiwan and it was amazing yet again. I'd love to go back and rent a scooter and explore on my own, but I have absolutely no complaints about getting a free trip there through my school!