Travel - Asia

How to Spend 3 Days in Phuket – Elephants, Boat Noodle Soup, Magic, Oh My!

(scroll down for itinerary/tips)

SET THE SCENE

White sand beaches that trail into ocean water reflecting the pale sand underneath – the make-up of the line of beaches of Phuket. Standing with your feet in the crumbly sand and the taste of ocean in the air, you can see the pretty coastline from any angle. In the distance, there are green trees covering certain parts of the coastlines and parasailers floating languidly in sky. The waves oscillate between gentle and bursts of power hinting of potential thunderstorms and larger waves to come. If you come around June and July, be prepared for low cast clouds and occasional days of pouring rain with peeks of sunshine on your lucky moments. The beaches are lined with umbrellas, mats, and the occasional random tree swing. There are swimmers enjoying the warm water and people on jetski’s moving around. In the distance you can see the further islands of Thailand looking remote in all of its glory.

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Phi Phi Coast

SUGGESTED 3 DAY ITINERARY

DAY 1: My family arrived around the afternoon and we were still recovering from Bangkok so we decided to chill at our hotel which had a great pool and poolside bar! Then we went out looking for a Thai massage to finish off the relaxing day (and you can find plenty of massage parlors everywhere!)

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Poolside Bar (rec: get a hotel with one!)

DAY 2: Chilling at Patong Beach! And booking the Phi Phi Tour and FantaSea show.

DAY 3: Phi Phi Tour and FantaSea show at night

PHUKET TRAVEL TIPS:

-BEACHES: Phuket is located on the coast so you have plenty of beaches to choose from. I honestly just walked to the nearest beach from my hotel which was Patong Beach. When you get to the beach, there are going to be a lot of locals that will try and get you to buy a chair or umbrella from them to sit under – avoid the cost and just spread out a towel unless the sun is absolutely horrendous that day. Many of the locals also offer kayaking, parasailing, jetskis, etc.

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Patong Beach

-MARKETS: There are plenty of markets to shop in and eat at in Phuket but the following two are where I went:

Phuket Floating Market: Think of this as a more modern, clean floating market. When I went with my family on a random weekday morning, a lot of the shops were closed so I recommend maybe coming on a weekend afternoon. WHAT TO EAT: I found the BEST fried chicken I have ever had in my life here! The flavoring on the chicken was unbeatable! You also have to try the boat noodle soup and the duck noodle soup!

Night Market outside Banzaan Fresh Market: Plenty of food to stuff your face! You can also go inside the Banzaan Fresh Market and buy fresh seafood, have a restaurant on the second floor cook it, and eat it super fresh! WHAT TO EAT: Thai rolled ice cream, ice cream in a coconut, meat skewers, fish maw soup, papaya salad

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-NIGHTLIFE: The famous Bangla Road. It’s pretty fun to walk through at night!

-THAI MASSAGE: I completely forgot to mention this on my Bangkok blog, but do not leave Thailand without getting a Thai massage! They are so cheap for 1 hour. My cousins and I spent our evenings post-beach getting massages that completely relaxed our muscles.

-LEAVING PHUKET: Phuket is a tourist trap so you will see a million flyers to do tours to different islands off the coast of Thailand such as Phi Phi and James Bond Island. Since I had limited time with my family, we booked a tour through a travel agency that let us go see Phi Phi Island and snorkel for a day. It was great feeling the wind in my hair my feet over the ocean on the boat but the part of Phi Phi the tour company took us to was pretty touristy and the beaches were dirty. If you are craving some good island time, a lack of tourists, and untouched beaches, I suggest actually spending a few nights on Phi Phi like one of my friends did. And taking one of these boats below:

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-SHOWS: Phuket has a couple famous shows. The one I went to see was FantaSea. There is a park surrounding the stage where the show happens and the park is like Thailand Disneyland. There are a ton of fun games to play and elephants walking around. The show was also pretty entertaining to see – complete with elephants, acrobats, and magic! We also got a deal through a tour company in Phuket. Oh you can buy tickets for just the show or show + buffet dinner (since my family are notorious buffet eats, we went with the buffet package and the food was decent).

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FantaSea (outside the stage)

-WHERE TO EAT: Phuket is a tourist trap. You will see endless of pad thai and not so great quality. I do recommend one restaurant that truly wowed me with their food – No.9 Restaurant. Probably why it has great TripAdvisor ratings and a line outside the restaurant.

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To find a complete list of what to eat in Thailand, check out my Bangkok blog!

 

Happy traveling!

-M

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Travel - Asia

The Complete Guide to Bangkok, Thailand – Serenity and Spice

(scroll down for itinerary/tips)

SET THE SCENE

Just landing in Suvarnabhumi Airport and walking around the luggage pick-up area gives you the first glimpse of just how visited Thailand is. Left and right there are backpackers, family, and friends from all over the world, the different languages filling the air, moving around. You already feel a rush of excitement being in the midst of it.

You get to the streets and realize just how populated the city is. Taxi and random cars dot the highways, each following each other in a slow crawl. The July air is thick with humidity and the random spaces where shade lingers provides a much needed coolness. But beyond the sunshine are the thick gray clouds waiting to roll in and sprinkle droplets on the pavement and roofs. The Skyrail system whistles as it soars through the rails above the buildings and people shuffle in and out at rapid paces, destinations in mind.

Then there’s the Chao Phraya River, the major body of water flowing through Bangkok, and it’s a magnificent view. Hotels dot the side of the river – not so much like towering skyscrapers in New York or Hong Kong, but more so like scattered tall towers, each unique in architecture. With sunrise or sundown, the sky lights up in magnificent shades of red, orange, and yellow – the streaks going for miles and the rays peeking behind buildings. The boats and ferries on the river move merrily down and become illuminated when darkness lays its blanket over the city. Quiet and strong – tis the river spirit.

On one side of town, the streets and tiny alleyways are bustling in markets. Crates of overflowing dried shrimp, dried squid and street carts of noodles being fried or sausages cooked and served on sticks. The aroma of fresh spices and fried food punches through the air calling all locals and tourists. Shops with jewelry and shoes are in between everything else. Jumping on the Skytrain takes you to another part of town – one surrounded in four corners by glorious shopping malls. The malls are an attraction itself with several floors, some of them differently themed. There is a mall called Terminal 21 that transports you to different parts of the world. Then there are the four big shopping centers glittering with its expensive brand names and grocery stores equivalent to Whole Foods back in the states.

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Take a taxi or ferry to an area of town filled with Wats. Forward and backward, you see the magnificent towers of Wat Arun and the sparkling colors of the Grand Palace. There’s tourists all around you filing in lines to get in these areas and wander the sacred grounds. Tall, thick white walls surrounding some of the temples, hiding away the precious Buddhas from passerby’s eyes. The sides of the streets are lively with souvenir shops and carts pushing around fresh coconuts to enjoy in the blazing sun.

And that is Bangkok in a nutshell.

SUGGESTED 3 DAY ITINERARY OF BANGKOK

DAY 1

-I always say the first day in any city after a period of travel should be devoted to exploring the area nearby and relaxing. If it’s your first day of your entire trip, you may feel more energetic to go further but I just got done with a couple days in Hong Kong so I needed a day to rest my legs a bit.

-My family and I spent time wandering around the streets around Chinatown and sampling different street food. You can scroll down below to see what you should eat in Thailand!

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-SILAM AREA: You can take the Skytrain or MRT to this area. What can you do in this area? Explore Lumphini Park which is Bangkok’s biggest park.

-Also take time to wander around any market you see. While there are some famous ones, there are little ones in alleyways everywhere!

-At night after dinner, my cousins and I spent some time at a bar near the Chao Phraya River – I highly suggest this place – the Long Bar at the Shangri-La Hotel. The views of Bangkok and the river at night are something you cannot miss so check it out at night whether at a river side bar or a rooftop bar!

DAY 2

-You need to spend one day dedicated to exploring the temples in Bangkok. They are absolutely beautiful and pretty cheap to get in. They are also all clustered around each other and thus an easy walking distance from one to one. Must not miss:

  • Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) – you can walk in for free and explore the grounds around the two areas but to walk around the Grand Palace and go inside Wat Phra Kaew.
  • Wat Pho – this is where you will see the gorgeous, spectacular giant Buddha.
  • Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn
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Wat Pho – Giant Reclining Buddha

DAY 3

-Before you leave Bangkok, you should definitely check out the shopping areas. There is one spot in Siam that is the shopping center of the city – contains Central World, Siam Paragon, Siam Center, Siam Discovery, MBK, and Terminal 21.

-I ended up at Terminal 21 – a pretty cool mall built to mimic an airport! Every floor is a different terminal at a different city around the world! There’s also a great mall food court on the 6th floor I think (or some floor near the 6th) – it’s the only floor not dedicated to an airport terminal. You’re probably thinking that you don’t want to eat at a mall, but trust me, the food is delicious, cheap, and there are so many options to choose from!

OTHER THINGS TO DO (that I didn’t get to):

  • Wat Prayoon
  • Markets: Klongsan Plaza Night Market, Flower Market, Klog Toey Fresh Market, Pratunam Market
  • Lumpinee Thai Boxing Stadium to watch a Muay Thai Show – the VIP ticket is ringside but second and third class tickets still give good view and the whole arena has A/C.

BANGKOK TRAVEL TIPS:

-CURRENCY: Baht. Can exchange at any airport and plenty of currency exchangers everywhere.

-HOTELS: If you can, I would suggest booking a room with a view of the Chao Phraya River. It is absolutely beautiful at sunrise and sunset.

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-TAXIS: to avoid being ripped off, agree on one price for the trip or have the driver agree to use the meter. Some drivers will try and rip you off by letting you get into the car and overcharging you for a price or charging each person per luggage. Do not take no for an answer! Don’t get into those taxis that do that. Also, you will find a lot of taxi drivers do not know where they are going (I don’t know why but this made for many amusing stories for us). Lastly, the traffic in Bangkok is insane – especially around peak time starting around 3-4PM. It will take forever to get from one place to another so be wary of that and take the Skytrain, tuk tuk, ferry, or walk.

-SKYTRAIN: a really useful and inexpensive way to getting around Bangkok – it is their above ground metro system. Unfortunately, it does not cover all of Bangkok yet – their goal is to be able to access all parts of the city using this system in the future. Take this route of transportation if you are trying to get to the mall areas and Silam area. If you are trying to get to the WAT AREAS, there is no skytrain that takes you there – you will have to taxi, tuk tuk, ferry, or walk. HOW TO USE: you can either buy a ticket at the window or exchange money into coins you use to buy at the machine. You have to decide your ending stop in order to buy the ticket (how far you go will determine how much the ticket is). Watch the trains to see which way the train is going. Some platforms have trains that run in either direction of the lines.

-WATS: remember to dress appropriately. This means no tank tops and all pants, dresses, or skirts must be long enough to brush the top of your feet. Just below the knee won’t cut it. Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha) is 400 baht (you get to see the Grand Palace too). Wat Pho and Wat Arun are 100 baht.

-RIVER CRUISES: there are several river cruise lines on the Chao Phraya River and I suggest doing one of them. It’s a great way to travel the river at night and see the beautiful lit up buildings and take in some fresh air. Most of them include dinner and entertainment. Some lines are buffet and some are a la carte. Some also might have bars and others won’t. Just do your research! My family and I took the Riverside Bangkok Cruiseline. It was a buffet that included pretty decent food and unlimited prawns as well.

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View from our river cruise

-ROOFTOP OR RIVERSIDE BARS: there are some famous rooftop bars that will give you a gorgeous view of the city: Muse Hotel, Bangkok Marriott Hotel, and the Moon Bar at Banyan Tree Hotel. My cousins and I didn’t get around to going to the rooftop ones, but there is one riverside bar we recommend: the Long Bar at Shangri-La Hotel. With its expansive windows and plush seats, you feel as though you are sitting right by the Chao Phraya River. It’s a gorgeous view and not to mention, the drink menu is extensive and made well there. They also give complimentary taro chips and peanuts!

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Long Bar at the Shangri-La Hotel

WHAT TO EAT IN THAILAND

Every restaurant, especially in tourist trap areas, will serve the typical Thai fanfare you think of: pad thai,  pad see ew, curry in every flavor, and tom yum soup. But below is my list of local foods you should consider trying!

-Fried chicken – I know, I know. This is not something you would think of ordering in Thailand but I swear I have had some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in this country. Of course, it depends on the stall you’re getting it from but try to find a street stall or a stall in a market that is making golden crispy fried chicken with a ton of seasoning on top.

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-Pandan – This is a dessert I discovered at a street cart. I bought it on a whim as it looks like a golden brown cake rolled in some green paste and I discovered how delicious it was. The green paste which is made from pandan is a hard taste to pin down but I highly encourage everyone to give it a try!

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-Papaya Salad or Som Tam – made of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, toasted peanuts, and chili! Can have it not very spicy to very spicy!

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-Meat Skewers – Usually they are skewers of grilled pork or chicken and they are fantastic, juicy snacks while browsing the streets of Thailand. Sometimes it even comes with sticky rice!

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-Larb – This is one of my favorite Thai dishes ever. It’s basically minced pork salad but what makes this dish delicious are all the spices the pork is cooked with. The pork is usually combined with lime juice, different herbs, and onions.

-Steamed Lime Fish – This is a huge dish to share amongst family or friends. Many seafood restaurants will let you pick out the fish you want and then the fish is brought out in a fish dish and heated throughout your dinner with a flame. The fish is topped with fresh chili, lime, and garlic!

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-Grilled Fish – Made on a grill with lots of salt and stuffed with lemongrass – dip it into different dipping sauces!

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-Duck Noodle Soup – a great dish in the markets – the soup is so flavorful and the duck is tender!

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-Thai Boat Noodle Soup – If you happen to find yourself in a floating market, then this is a fantastic dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The soup is incredibly flavorful and some places will add liver in as well (which is super tasty if you haven’t tried it). Really one of my favorite dishes to eat in Thailand. Apparently the secret to this broth is a dash of pig’s blood (hope that doesn’t turn anyone off!).

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-Kuay Jab – or basically rice noodle roll soup

-Radna – Basically noodles with gravy. The brown gravy with red chili flakes over the noodles is a fantastic dish to try! You can get it really cheap at the Terminal 21 mall food court.

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Radna is the bottom dish with the fried egg

-Cockles – For those of you more adventurous and a lover of clams and oysters – this is something you have to try. I ate a ton of these on my Bangkok river cruise and each piece was incredibly flavorful. You just can’t stop eating them! Beware: could cause the runs – I got lucky but I think it was because I didn’t eat it off the side of the street.

-Thai Tea – although a cliché thing to have, I have to suggest it just because every single Thai tea I had in Thailand was delicious and not overly sweet or bland.

-Pad Thai – I’m only including this on the list to suggest that if you see someone frying pad thai on the side of the street, then get it – it’s fresh and usually a great snack to munch on while you walk around. The best pad thai I had in Thailand though was in Phuket at No.9 restaurant.

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-Tom Yum Soup – this is a very common dish you will find in every restaurant and surprisingly no matter where I went, I found the soup to always be extremely flavorful and really spicy (if you want it to be!)

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-Mango with sticky rice – Mhmm. The best dessert ever!

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-Thai Rolled Ice Cream or Ice Cream in a Coconut – can be found at street carts! They are both delicious and a must try!

-Fruit off the street carts such as pineapple and coconuts!

Happy traveling in Bangkok!

-M

Travel - Asia, Travel - China

Mash-Up

Imagine Portugal and Las Vegas smashed together into one city, and there you have Macau. For those of you who haven’t been to either place, let me paint a picture for you.

Cotai Strip
Cotai Strip

Standing in Cotai Strip, the strip of hotels and casinos that mimics Las Vegas, I look left and right, up and down to see that despite being in Asia, I am overwhelmed with structures that transport me back to Europe. The Eiffel Tower stands above me awaiting it’s opening of The Parisian, an upcoming hotel/casino, and beckoning to all those who arrive. Scattering the sky front are magnificent buildings, varying in architecture, all glistening in the sunlight like tiny jewels in the east corner of Asia. Wandering around more, you’ll wander into a piece of Venice represented by a replica of Doge’s Palace. The gothic architecture impresses and shadows in the dusk light with its smooth salmon and pale colored tiles illuminated by the lanterns. The walkways along the street are also dotted with greenery from the high trees to the shrubs.

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Wandering around The Venetian just transports you to another world. With the expansive hallways and high ceilings, it’s easy to get lost within this glorious hotel. Soon the hallways leads to what seems like a painting of the Venice canals. Gondolas float languidly beckoning visitors and shops dot the sidelines with big brand names lighting up the tops. Doors to the buffets let out delectable smells of aisles of international cuisine and sounds of coins and the jingling music of slot machines reverberate through the halls.

That’s just half of Macau. Then over the long white bridge to what they call “old town” is the other half influenced by the Portuguese. It’s a whole other world. Once again, I am transported to the towns I wandered through Portugal many years ago. The buildings are painted in vivid colors of golden yellow, sea blue, and crimson. The windows and shades are splashed with similar colors and against the vivid blue sky, the architecture is a stunning sight to see. The Largo de Senado Square is booming with people enjoying the sun, strolling up to see the famous landmarks such as Church of St. Paul, or piling towards Koi Kei Bakery to enjoy a variety of jerky or a mouth-watering Portuguese egg tart.

Portuguese Egg Tart
Portuguese Egg Tart

————

Now my family and I basically experienced Macau in less than 24 hours. Probably a little poor planning on our part because to truly experience every part of the city, you have to stay at least 2 full days – perhaps 2 full days is enough. Regardless, here are my travel tips to this city:

-If you are coming from Hong Kong, you can easily buy a ticket on any ferry. There are two ferry lines, but we chose the Cotai Water Jet which got us there in 1 hour. Buy the tickets ahead of time and yes, you can buy online! You do not have to check any baggage in no matter the size. Just wheel it with you through security and onto the ferry! Have your passport on you since you do go through immigration.

-You can use Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) in Macau (widely accepted) – no need to exchange currency.

-If you’re staying at a hotel on Cotai Strip (where all the casinos are), then you can take a shuttle from a hotel or take a taxi to “old town” which is on the other side of the bridge. The “old town” is the Portuguese influenced area. Ask your hotel about free bus shuttles!

-Also if you are staying at a hotel on Cotai Strip – most of them have free arranged buses that transport you from the ferry to the hotel. Just ask your hotel about it.

-If you take a taxi to “old town”, they drop you off at this taxi drop-off line-up place if you tell them

Tiny Eggrolls
Tiny Eggrolls

you want to go to Largo de Senado Square. From there you will have to turn right onto the upcoming street and keep walking down until you see a big square on your right.

-Largo de Senado Square contains the famous Koi Kei Bakery – go inside and you can taste many samples of their treats, snacks, and famous jerky. There you can taste the famous Portuguese Egg Tart – an egg custard that is crème-brulee like in a flaky crust. One of my absolute favorite desserts ever since I tried one in Portugal many years ago. I was so happy to be eating it again.

-And at this bakery, I found one of my favorite childhood snacks that seemed to have disappear from Asian grocery stores’ shelves in America: these tiny eggrolls. I couldn’t find them anywhere else when I looked at other grocery store in Hong Kong and Thailand so if anyone knows where I can find this again, please let me know!

-From the square, you can walk up and immediately get to Igreja de Sao Domingos. From there, there are more signs taking you up to Church of St. Paul.

Igreja de Sao Domingos
Igreja de Sao Domingos

-Other landmarks to see: Guia Fort (highest point that you can see the city from), A-Ma Temple, Taipa Village

Until the next adventure,

M

Travel - Asia, Travel - China

Dim Sum to Skyscrapers

How to Explore Hong Kong in Less Than 3 Days

Being in Hong Kong is like being in the NYC of Asia. The streets are bustling with cars, taxis, buses, and people (citizens and tourists alike) are crossing the streets in masses with their eyes looking forward towards a destination or looking upwards at the massive skyscrapers that dot around Hong Kong. The underground metro system roars with the bustling crowds, and ferries glitter as they glide across the waters shuttling people and goods. There are countless places to eat and many things to see. Yet, in the span of 3 days, my family, cousins, and I managed to experience most of Hong Kong. So where do we start?

The Basics
• Currency: Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) – there are many currency exchange places wherever you look and can be even found in hotels and definitely airports

• Transportation from Airport: The airport is located far away from most things in Hong Kong. You’ll probably need to airport shuttle to Hong Kong or Kowloon area depending where you want to go or where you are staying. You can buy the Airport Express Shuttle Card at the airport to whatever destination (Hong Kong or Kowloon).

• Transportation Around City: Best and cheapest way of getting around is the MTR system (their underground metro system) – basically covers all the places you need to get to in Hong Kong and beats the traffic. I recommend buying an Octopus card (similar to the card in London). This can be bought at the airport or any MTR station. When buying the card (you’ll need one card per person), you will have to make a 50HKD deposit and then I suggest adding 100HKD on top of that for around 2-3 days of travel. So total = 150HKD/person. At the end of your trip, you can refund for money at the airport or any train station. Then you just scan the card every time you get in and out of the station. Train runs from 6AM-12:30AM. TIP: you can download the MTR maps onto your phone – there’s an app.

What to Do?
So Hong Kong is kind of divided into two main areas: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Because of this, I divided up our itinerary based off things to do in each area. My family and I didn’t get to do everything because you always have to consider the constraints of time to travel to places, etc.

The following is my suggested itinerary my cousins and I made together – feel free to switch and swap!

Day One: Hong Kong Island by day and Kowloon Markets by night
• Spend the afternoon by wandering through the magnificent city structures!
• Central: (MTR: Central stop) Here is where you find the skyscrapers, huge shopping malls with big designer names, and massive financial buildings left and right. First of all, the shopping malls here are insane – way bigger than the ones in the states. You can literally get lost in them which we did and had to use a map to get out. The malls have grocery stores inside as well and I suggest just walking through and taking a look – one of my favorite things to do in a new country is peruse the aisles of their grocery stores. If I can buy a new interesting snack, I will.
• View of Hong Kong Waterfront across Victoria Harbor and its skyscrapers – you can go to the IFC mall and go outside onto its balconies and rooftop garden.
• Causeway Bay: (MTR: Causeway Bay) – this is a giant shopping area with so many streets to wander through. If you have time, I would suggest just getting lost in this area and exploring.

Hong Kong Waterfront from IFC Mall
Hong Kong Waterfront from IFC Mall

• Places I didn’t make it to (but maybe you can!):
o SoHo: you can wander up to this area from the Central area through the outdoor escalators – which are the longest outdoor escalators in the world! My family and I didn’t get to explore this area since we spent most of the day exploring Central and eventually Causeway Bay.
o Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road – filled with burning incense coils and worship idols.

• Use the night time to explore night markets!
• Because our hotel was in Kowloon, we thought it was easier to just go ahead and explore the night markets in the area and be an easy couple of MTR stops away. We headed to Temple Street Night Market that night and was met with ups and downs. This is definitely on the list of many traveler’s guides to explore, but upon reaching the street, I found it was just quite a tourist trap (which of course, I did expect). The street is lined with tents of souvenirs and clothing. For food, you have to wander between the streets where you will find different restaurants that allow you to pick your seafood on their market price or different stalls selling fishballs, milk tea, sausage on a stick, pork buns, etc. BEWARE: the restaurants will hack up their prices once they realize you’re a tourist and not a local. I would actually suggest buying little foods from different stalls and trying different cuisines than actually sitting down and be ripped off.
• Other famous night markets to check out: Mongkok Market (includes many streets of markets including the Women’s Market, Fish Market, Flower Market, Goldfish Market, etc.)

Day 2: Lantau Island by day and Victoria Harbor by night
My family did not get to go to Lantau Island due to the fact we ended up taking off for a day to Macau (another blog) and one of us got sick and we needed to take a rest day. Regardless, I am sharing what should’ve been the itinerary!

• Lantau Island features one of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions: Tian Tan Buddha which is the largest seated Buddha in the world. There are several ways to get there. You can take a ferry or the most popular way: the cable car, which I recommend since you will also get to see magnificent aerial views of Hong Kong. You can easily get to the cable car by taking the Tung Shung MTR to the last stop.
• Victoria Harbor: (MTR Tsim Sha Tsui Station Exit E) and head right towards the harbor. This is a great place to check out at night, especially if you come around 8-9PM and see the Symphony of Lights which is a slow light show that the buildings on the waterfront put on. Really, it’s a beautiful view to watch the sunset over

Victoria Harbor
Victoria Harbor

the waterfront and see Hong Kong’s lights come to life. You can also choose to board the Star Ferry to see the show from boat but it’s around 150-200HKD.
o Around the Harbor, you can also walk the Avenue of Stars which is basically Hong Kong’s Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. However, when we were there this summer, it was shut down for reconstruction and apparently won’t be open until 2018.
Day 3: Hike Victoria’s Peak and enjoy a relaxing day hitting the sights you might have missed before
For us, our day three was cut short since we had a flight out that evening. Thus I only had one activity down, but I would say if this is your last day of traveling, you should take it easy the rest of the day, eat some good food, and go to the places you haven’t checked off yet!

• From Victoria’s Peak, you can see the all of Hong Kong Island which is another spectacular view. There are several ways of getting up to this peak. You can hike, tram, or taxi. I suggest getting there early in the morning to get a refreshing view while the weather is still cool (especially if it’s summer) and to beat the giant crowd – that way you can take a taxi up and then take the tram down (if you don’t plan on walking a lot of it).

The Food

Mak's Noodles
Mak’s Noodles

Anyone who knows me will know that one of the reasons I travel is to try the different cuisine, but while in America, we have apps like Yelp and Google Maps to direct us precisely to what places we want to go, we usually don’t have these luxuries when traveling. You can argue that you can buy data and have those luxuries, but one of the best parts of traveling for me is the separation from the internet – being able to explore and get lost and maybe find a treasure somewhere. So most of the times, I won’t be recommending exact places unless one place really stood out to me.

• First beware, most restaurants will always set out a cup of tea for each person that comes in immediately. Whether the restaurant charges you or not depends. You can ask. Sometimes, they will even charge you for the tea even if you didn’t drink it (certain restaurants in the Hong Kong International Airport)
Mak’s Noodles: this is one place my cousin and I were determined to find and hunt down. We have heard so many things about this small noodle shop and really wanted to try it out. Definitely didn’t disappoint – the soup was tasty, the noodles were fresh, the dumplings were plentiful in shrimp – my only thing is that the portion size is incredibly small! Would probably need 2 bowls to be full. Service was excellent though – they are all incredibly friendly!

Egg Tart with Hong Kong Waffle behind
Egg Tart with Hong Kong Waffle behind

Egg Waffle: these are sold everywhere – I recommend getting them fresh off a hot griddle from a stall – they’re crispy, fluffy, and really, there’s nothing on it but the batter has the right touch of sweetness making it a perfect snack to walk with on the streets.
Egg Tart: also same as above – find at any bakery and should be eaten hot.

Milk Tea
Milk Tea

Milk Tea: the milk tea I bought from a random stall was honestly one of the best I’ve ever had. Lightly creamy, sweet, with a good hint of tea – it was the perfect combination. I know for travelers, some people are wary about the ice so I would say this one is just up to you. Also hot milk tea is something definitely to be tried since Hong Kong has their own tea time just like you would see in London.
Curry Fish Meatballs: also a popular street snack – served in a Styrofoam cup with wooden sticks – really a good but SPICY treat. There are probably some non-spicy options but the one I got had all of our mouths on fire

Curry Fish Meatballs
Curry Fish Meatballs

Dim Sum: you can’t miss this in Hong Kong! This is where you get to taste so many different types of dishes and dumplings in bamboo baskets.
Other different things you should try that I missed out on (oh the constraints of time): Australian Dairy Company, stinky tofu, typhoon crab

Until the next adventure,
M

Med School Musings, Travel - Asia, Travel - Indonesia

The Other Side of Substance Use

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In our last week of neurology/psychiatry module, we covered substance use disorders. The lectures went from 8am to 12pm and they focused on the symptoms of intoxication, symptoms of withdrawal, and treatments. It was rather dry, and while the professors tried to do their best to have us understand that substance use is a disease, the message fell short.

In that cold classroom with my addiction notes in front of me, I was transported back to the coolness of Bandung and the tables outside the treatment center where I would hang out and share coffee with the “druggies”.

I will admit that the area of substance use and addiction was a topic I was very unfamiliar with before I signed onto the Indonesia Initiative project. For those of you just reading this, I worked with Rumah Cemara (RC) this previous summer. RC is a community-based organization that focuses on fighting stigma against HIV/AIDS and substance use. I spent my summer interviewing and learning the stories of the clients at the treatment center. In lack of better terms, my time there changed the way I view this population.

It’s so easy for society, whether it’s Indonesia or America, to take a look at these drug-users and immediately judge them and cast them aside. These kind of reactions are some of the reasons why many drug users relapse again and again. Society does not accept them, and they are labeled as outcasts. They are seen as people who did this to themselves. They walk around experiencing discrimination everywhere – family, community, and the workplace.

Regardless of the motives behind their initial drug using, these “druggies” are still humans. Addiction is a disease characterized by constant relapse and horrific withdrawal symptoms that can really push the human body to the limit. Many of them struggle with mental illness and mood disorders. A majority of them lack a home, a support system, money, and love. So tell me, if you were in those circumstances, wouldn’t it be so easy to pick up drugs again?

I write this specific blog just to bring some more emotion and shed some humanity onto the dry substance use lectures we receive in medical school. These “druggies” made me laugh and smile and so welcomed. They had amazing stories of trials and hope. They all had a fighting spirit that was so admirable.

Now many would argue with me that not all drug users are like that – motivated and hopeful – and I agree, but it does not give us the right to stand from afar and judge and pretend like we know their background stories. Cast them off as hopeless and not worth the time.

My time and work with RC has not only opened my eyes to the world of substance use, but it has given me a newfound respect for this population. I hope to be able to carry this demeanor into the clinical setting when I rotate through psychiatry and beyond the grounds of medical school.

And I challenge my friends to do the same. Don’t just walk out of a room with a substance use patient shaking your head. Take the time to truly ask how they are. Shed a little compassion.

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Once again, I thank Rumah Cemara and my amazing Indonesia team (Teresa, Anum, Omer) for inspiring this blog.
-M

Travel - Asia, Travel - Indonesia

By Dusk and Dawn

By daylight, the sun peeks shyly through the large leaves blanketing the tables and chairs. Ants busily work their way through the dirt and across the tables, gathering all the food they need. They fall from the rustle of the greenery. It’s mostly quiet except for the occasional motorbike sounds zooming by outside and the whimsical laughter of children. At times, the Azan reverberates through the air. There’s beautiful paintings splashed across the walls and a serene pond near the building where sessions are held and where the guys sleep. The early hours bring the scent of coffee and glistening morning dew frosting the grass. Motivational posters, quotes, acronyms, etc. are hung everywhere. At noon, aromatic smells rise from the kitchen where rice, chicken, and whatever delicious dishes are being made.

By dusk, different colors paint the sky. The noises of the motorbikes become more frequent as people rush home through the narrow alleyways and streets. The Azan still echoes in and out. The dark skies of the night comes to meet the daylight colors early. Between six and seven, night falls. Occasionally, there are no colors in the sky except grayness. Thunder gently rolls and rumbles and rain pours. Buckets and buckets of rain, cooling the already cool air. A heavy scent of rain settles in.

At this treatment center are recovering drug users. These terms are what society has labeled them if they dare to even speak about their past. But they’re not just “recovering drug users”. They’re people with struggles, fears, hopes, and dreams just like any of us. I have felt so privileged to be able to hear their stories. They come from all different parts of Indonesia with different kinds of struggles and pasts, but their bravery and persistence and desires to beat the addiction and the diseases are admirable.

It’s been three weeks. Three weeks of my team and I mingling around the treatment center learning the ways and delving deep into the stories. Of sitting in the office and playing with lizards and snakes. Finding a computer. Under the tree, eating and sharing feelings and hearing stories. In the grass, flicking off the ants, while listening to the Azan mix with the interviews. In the complete dark in a black-out with candles lit, sharing conversation and laughing over jokes and jabs.

20140611_141626Setting up a new bookcase and opening new books with everyone. Singing and swaying with the sweetest girl. Watching curiosity light the eyes. Discussing nutrition and diabetes. Questions and answers. Explaining and teaching sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Wincing at grotesque pictures together. Drawing pictures on the whiteboard. Passing around bananas and condoms as the storm outside rages on, slamming the windows and the doors.

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There are no words to cover appropriately how I feel towards them and what I have learned so I shall end this little ode to them with this: It’s been a grand adventure and I have so many thanks to give to the clients. They have taught me so much about persistence and bravery, and my gratitude and love for this place will never leave me. May the world reunite us again some day.

My greatest thanks to the Rumah Cemara family and my amazing team of four.

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Travel - Asia, Travel - Indonesia

Home with the Tattoos and Drugs

Bandung, Indonesia

Picture this scenario. An area where the word HIV still brings shudders to people’s bodies and forces many away. A community where many still judge those who fall under the influence of drugs. A place where there is little help for those who want to recover. Hospitals where physicians do not treat HIV+ patients right; where they are still discriminated against, especially in the medical community.

And tucked away in a building behind some steaming food carts is Rumah Cemara (RC). RC is a CBO that works with recovering injecting drug users (IDUs). RC provides a treatment center with different sessions: group discussions, spiritual counseling, sport programs, wellness program, etc. All these sessions are designed to push IDUs away from their addictions and towards the path of recovery. Every client has a different treatment plan designed to what he or she needs, and they stay at the treatment center for 6 months on average. RC also offers a way for clients to access medication treatment such as Methadone at the local hospitals. They integrate the community with the HIV+ population by providing different fitness classes and competing in soccer (football). Football, especially their participation in the Homeless World Cup, has brought a great amount of spotlight on the organization. RC aims to eliminate the stigma and discrimination that looms over IDUs and HIV+ people in the local community.

Even with this brief explanation I gave, I cannot fully explain their cause with justice. This is only what I’ve learned by spending a week with them, and they are more than just their amazing work. RC is made of a brotherhood of the most amazing group of people I have ever met. The guys are covered in tattoos and they are loud and extremely energetic. They are empowering individuals, but they are also just down-to-earth, goofy humans with the most golden hearts.

At a local hospital
At a local hospital

My team and I spent most of the first week lingering around the office speaking with different staff workers and meeting clients who had finished the treatment program. The office is filled with desks piled with paperwork, shelves cluttered with awards and future plans, couches and chairs in every corner, and a sense of companionship in the air. We’ve been here for only a week but they’ve welcomed us like family.

On one of the days, we found ourselves in a room tucked in the couches and chairs with one of the founders of RC, Ginan, sitting across from us. The room was slightly hot and sticky. I tugged on my loose long-sleeved shirt, but I paid little attention to the sweat. My eyes were fixated on the computer screen as I watched a couple brief videos about RC. The first video gave a brief introduction about RC and the workers, but the second video brought a couple tears to my eyes that I hid discreetly from everyone else. The second video depicted Ginan, a man with a troubled past, walking between Bandung and Jakarta (two major cities) to fulfill a promise he made. The promise was that he would walk that distance if someone sponsored his team of HIV+ recovering/recovered IDUs to attend the Homeless World Cup to compete. In the video, he leans over crying as he hugs his foster child, and that scene just shattered something in me.

With Ginan and our translator, A*, in the Rumah Cemara office
With Ginan and our translator, A*, in the Rumah Cemara office

After the videos, we sat there in contemplative silence as Ginan talked a little bit about his past. His stories barely scratched the surface of who he is, but it was enough for us to understand a fraction of him. The sweet indescribable smell of Indonesia mixed with the nearby fried foods lingered in the air. Ginan picked up his guitar and began to strum a tune. The music filled the space harmonizing with the content laughter and voices outside.

So thank you Rumah Cemara for welcoming us into your homes and your center with your warmth, your smiles, your stories, and your kindness. I hope in the next couple weeks we will be able to serve you well with the fullest of hearts.

My amazing team
My amazing team

I will be writing a series of blogs over the next few weeks and leaving many of the names anonymous[*] for privacy purposes. In no way do my words do the goals and the people of Rumah Cemara justice. So I invite you to watch these next two videos. They don’t tell the whole story but it will give you a picture into what this group of current and former drug addicts are like and the special work they do.

Start from Part 1