Monthly Archives: March 2010

heart and seoul

Seoul is my city.  I could live here.  I think people do nothing but shop, eat, and hike mountains.  And work, of course. Maybe a lot more than I’d like.  But that’s just to earn money for the shopping and the eating, and the shopping required to go hiking. 

The city is plugged in and wired up, and everything is easy and comfortable and convenient.  Of everything, I think my biggest culture shock will come from trying to navigate the DC metro, after the pampering on the  Seoul subway (and I was only here for 6 days!).

The food is phenomenal.   Traditional Korean food is probably one of the world’s best cuisines, a culture that has poured its heart into the kitchen and produced some amazing culinary delights.   But modern Korean fusion is fantastic too, and the same care and vision that goes into Korean fashion and design finds its way into food too.  After a year in Mongolia, where it sometimes feels like taste is an afterthought, it’s welcoming to spend a week in a country that pampers the taste buds, along with your soul.

So of course, I ate. A lot.  And I shopped.  Not a lot, though enough.  You could spend hours exploring the cute little neighborhoods, each with their own personality, finding little stores in hideaway alleys where handmade jewelry, tea sets, and other knickknacks made by someone’s sister abound. 

I didn’t hike any mountains, though I did visit the DMZ, which deserves its own post (if only for the space required for my ramblings on foreign policy and history).   I think, as I end my travels, that I’ve hit a bit of travel fatigue.  I could continue traveling, of course, but probably can’t muster the energy to do more than eat and shop and maybe relax in the spa.  Which, really, is the perfect type of activity for Seoul.

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And, in direct opposition to the previous post, here’s a little shout-out to decadence.   Brunei isn’t tops on most people’s travel lists.   It’s a small country, there’s no alcohol, and it’s a bit expensive to get to and be in.  Unless, of course, you are already in Borneo and the border lies only an hour or so away.

So to Brunei, I went.  And stayed at what is probably the nicest place I’ve ever been in.  It wasn’t phenomenol by today’s standards – I imagine most swanky hotels in Dubai would blow it away.  But for a 25-year-old hotel, it still manages to awe, and holds a charm that modern hotels have yet still to earn. 

The hotel is the Empire, and it hearkens back to a nonexistent colonial era.  It’s thoroughly European (as this American would picture it), but with a distinct Asian flare.   The service is impeccable, the decor is gold-plated and ivory, and the rooms are furnished in an outdated whimsy that somehow manages to charm, despite being distinctly unstylish.  It helps of course, that the bathroom is the size of a small apartment, the balconies face the ocean, and the pool is a lagoon, complete with white sand covering all 11000 sq m of the floor.  Stunning is an understatement.

But the sultan’s brother didn’t stop there;  the hotel also boasts several shops, 5-6 restaurants, water sports rental (for kayaking in the aforementioned lagoon), 2 private beaches, 2 lookout points, a full golf course, spa, and probably a bit more.  It’s a miniature city, and is it any wonder I never actually got to see the rest of Brunei?

Not entirely true – I did see some oil rigs, and Shell Oil-owned homes.  But the highlight, of course, is the Empire.

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the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others.   In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that.   Do you know what palm oil is?  Most people don’t.  But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form.  It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course.   It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins.  It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers. 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone?  Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods…. and not much in the way of nutritional value.   Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees. 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo.   As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful.   You see palm fruit lying on the ground.  Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  But no undergrowth.  No birds. No monkeys.  No elephants.  In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant. 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery.  Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks?  Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons.   But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

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isle of whims

Wow.  So….  2 weeks since my last post.  I have no really good excuse for that, except that things slowed down a bit (though still just as fun) once I left Sabah.   In Sarawak, I headed straight for Kuching, spent about a day in the city and then booked for the countryside.  

I ended up at a little place in a village called Santubong, right on the South China Sea.   It’s really quite astonishing to go from living in a land-locked country to seeing so much water.   I’ve pretty much spent the past 2 months near (or right on) the ocean, and I’m still overwhelmed by the vastness.   In Santubong I stayed in a cute little retreat, far away from the real world and quite idyllic.  It was the perfect getaway and soooo relaxing after running around Sabah.

Then it was off to Mulu Caves to meet my cousin.  Mulu is a World Heritage site, and while it’s something to see, it’s not quite as phenomenal as I was expecting.  Partly, it’s been built up for tourism, so you feel a bit like cattled being herded through the caves.  I realize, of course, that you can get off the beaten path (go to the Pinnacles for example), but it’s kind of a lot of effort.   And since Borneo is such an easy place to travel, and perfect for the lazy traveler, it’s a bit hard to muster the energy to attempt a trek through the jungle.  And yes, I realize how silly that sounds.  The whole point of going to Borneo is to trek through the jungle, but since when have I been the typical traveler?

So I did the spa tour of Borneo instead.  Starting in Mulu, heading to Miri, and then Bandar Seri Begawan.  The hotels are beautiful, the ocean views gorgeous, the beds enormous, the sunsets fantastic, the spas blissful.   Nothing like a scrub/soak/massage/facial extravaganza to make life goooood. 

This is the nice part of traveling (not-so-nice part:  so sick of my clothes!) – being able to change up your plans and, on a whim, check into a fancy-schmancy hotel (with a movie theatre!!) and eat nachos by an 11000 sq m pool.  

In Seoul now.   More spas.  But sadly, it’s cold.  I miss the warmth of Borneo already.

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malaysia, truly asia

So a week in Borneo, and I’m finally getting around to an update here.  It’s been pretty hectic – we really packed it in this time, mostly because my friend is only here for the week.  And I want to spend more time in Sarawak, so we planned back-t0-back adventures here in sabah.

And adventures they were.  First, we climbed Mt Kinabalu, all 4000+ meters of it.  As usual, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and the 2 am ascent to summit before sunrise was a bit of a surprise for me.  But totally doable, because we were just coming off a full moon so the landscape was lit up beautifully (once we cleared the jungle and were on the bare granite).  It was not the easiest climb, but coming back down was much much harder (still waiting for that bionic knee surgery….).The sunrise was stunning.  I got a few decent pictures, tried not to freeze, and generally just enjoyed being on top of the world (or, at least, Sabah).

Then back to KK, in time to pack, drop off laundry, and get some sleep before an early wake-up to head to the airport to fly to Sandakan.  In Sandakan, bleary-eyed and quite sore, we cabbed to Sepilok, and Uncle Tan’s B&B, where we dropped our bags and headed out to see the orangutans at the sanctuary.

My little secret:  I LOVE LOVE LOVE orangutans.  They are absolutely adorable, like little orange grumpy old men.  If they wore clothes, you know it would be golf pants pulled waaaaay up.  Too cute.  Got a couple good pix, and then headed back to Uncle Tan’s for some lunch, and our transfer out to the Sungai Kinabatangan.

The Kinabatangan is the largest river in Sabah, and used to be deep in the jungle.  Nowadays it’s more like deep in the palm plantations (let me take this minute to note: palm oil = bad!  stop buying it!).  Still you really feel like you are far away from civilization, sitting in a jungle camp in the middle of nowhere next to a muddy river.

But Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp likes to make you feel like home.  Though sometimes, I felt a bit like I was back in UB, what with the karaoke singalong.  Minus the absurd humidity.  And heat.  And bugs.  And water.  And, ok, not like UB at all.

It’s a lot like summer camp, in that the guys that work there act a lot like camp counselors – singing songs, taking you on nature walks, boating around running into sandbars, and cooking some pretty freakin’ awesome food.   Also, they told me I look like Preity Zinta, and who doesn’t love a guy who says things like that?

We saw lots of wildlife, and got really lucky on our expeditions.  Plus my group of “elephants” was pretty damn cool.

Tomorrow…. Kuching!  Goodbye Sabah!

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Two weeks.  Beach.  Lots of yoga. Yummy food.  Nice people.  It doesn’t get better than this.   Here’s to India, and my 5 weeks here.  Yogashala was a fabulous place, and I am so happy to have met Padma and spent time in her glowing presence.  She is a wonderful person and a great teacher.  My practice has deepened so much.

Tomorrow, Kota Kinabalu and the mountains and jungles of Borneo.

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kerala logistical roundup

Now that I’m wrapping up in Kerala, I thought I would do a quick overview of some of the wonderful places I’ve stayed and eaten while here.

Kollam – We called the DTPC and arranged a homestay through them, at either Summer Home or Summer House (can’t remember) run by Shashi.  It’s right on the beach and was a relaxing getaway.  Shashi also owns a seafood restaurant, so dinner is not to be missed!  We also did a canoe toe of Munroe Island in Astamundi Lake.  Also quite nice.

Alleppey – Our first night was in Alleppey, where we stayed at the Palmy Residency.  VERY nice people, very nice place.  Then our second night we went out to Chennamkary to stay at GreenPalm Homes.  An amazing experience.

Kochi – We bucked tradition and stayed in Ernakulam, instead of Ft. Chchin, at a cute little place  called John’s Residency.  Very basic, but clean, and John is a nice guy.  Dinner was at a great place called Hotel Aryas.  We also had lunch at a great place in Fort Cochin called Dal Roti.  Yum.  And to top off a wonderful time, we found a women’s collective spice shop in Fort Cochin…. and a great bookstore in Ernakulam.

Kannur – I went up specifically to see the theyyam.  A must-see, I think.  Stayed at Costa Malabari, right on the beach.  Food was great.

Periyar – I stayed at Chitrasala Homestay.  The family is soooo nice. I really enjoyed the tea factory tour and spice garden.

Kovalam – I was here for 2 weeks, so lots going on.  First of, I’m staying at Pink Flower, which hosts Yoga Shala. Padma is really super nice and a fantastic teacher.  I’ve been having meals all over the beach – everything is great.  Going off the boardwalk and further back from the beach nets some better deals on shopping.  And don’t forget to bargain!

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