Memories of my Asian Vacation

Damn SKIPPY, shit changes in a matter of months, now doesn’t it?

Last time we were together (you and I), I was telling you about my upcoming trip to Southeast Asia. No longer “upcoming,” I can now say this trip was amazing, though ridiculously tiring, more so than I could have ever imagined. In the end, we didn’t even go to Cambodia due to the following scene stealer: a month and a half before the trip baby finds out she’s preggo.

We had to scratch Cambodia and opt for modern and clean Singapore instead and as such, this became the final destination on our trip. We began our festivities in Sydney, Australia, where my cooler-than-yours cousin showed us the sights. I had never been to Sydney and was thankful to Tony for showing us sights that are usually reserved for locals (though of course, as you can tell from the picture, we also hit up the usual tourists traps.) I was once again pleasantly reminded of what it was like to be in a place where a variety of food from different cultures was readily available – with the added bonus of it actually being tasty. Also the sense of security I felt in Sydney was welcoming after two and a half years living in Chile and never leaving the house without the angry “I-will-kick-you-in-the-shin-if-you-so-much-as-brush-past-me” look on my face (think of it as armor in this big, bad Santiago). Yes, yes, it was nice to give my face a rest from the perma scowl I sport on a regular. (Hopefully I was able to shave some years off with that facial release….)

After Sydney, G and I hopped an 8-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. What I can say about my limited time in Kuala Lumpur is this:

  • Only the City Centre, where the Petronas Towers are located, is truly modern. Outside of this area, the city experience is much more cultural and much more real.
    Petronas Towers – view from our hotel room
      • I fell in the love with the religious diversity that surrounded me. Do you need a Catholic Church? Just about three miles down. Do you need a Mosque? Right around the corner from the Church. Need a temple? Yeah, we’ve got that too. There were people walking past me in burkas, and next to them, people walking in tank tops and shorts. When you live in Homogeneous Haven (i.e. Chile), things like this really strike you and you begin to embrace with added passion that kind of diversity.
        • The KLCC Shopping Mall was a whole other experience in commerce. I’d never seen anything like it, not even in Tokyo! I particularly fell in love with the Isetan Supermarket located there even though my admitting this may sound rudimentary and ridiculous to some. Isetan is a Japanese retail chain in Malaysia, focused on offering “total lifestyle” options to its shoppers. In KLCC Shopping Mall Isetan spans five floors and offers everything a typical department store might offer and more! The “and more” is what appealed to me most, with its supermarket located on the first floor. Delightfully pristine and bright, I felt like I was Alice wandering around Wonderland. The retail presentation was neatly divided into segments (meat and poultry, frozen foods, health care, desserts, etc, etc) and reminded me of a futuristic Whole Foods. I fell in love. If only we had discovered it sooner so as to have guaranteed a larger chunk of my time there …

        We did see more, mind you. We even did those Hop-on Hop-Off bus tours so as to guarantee seeing as much as possible of the city during our short time there. But this isn’t a travel blog and I have no intention of delivering it as so. What I can tell you is that if you’re in Kuala Lumpur for a short time, like we were, the tour bus option is a great way to get a general overview of the entire city. It also enables you to choose exactly what you’d like to see with more detail in your time allotted by enabling the option of getting off at one point and picking back up where you left off some time after. And it spares your feet from massive amounts of walking!

      Our next stop was Phuket Thailand where we stayed at the Twin Palms Phuket located in the Surin Beach Area. Surin Beach was a great option for us because it was quiet, mellow and very laid back. Absolutely zero party vibe. If you’re into that sort of thing, which we are because we’re old folk trapped in 30-some-old bodies.  I highly recommend this beach. What struck me is that none of the hotels are located along the beach front, a la Mexico and its lovely Caribbean getaways. This is obviously a security measure that makes absolute sense after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which caused immeasurable destruction and loss to the majority of Thailand’s beach areas. This means we had to walk from our truly lovely hotel to the beach and though it wasn’t the most scenic walk, it was short and sweet and the view offered once you walked the 2-minute road was worth it.

      Crystal blue waters of Surin Beach.

      Now, if you’re anything like me, you like to bob or swim in the ocean until you prune. This is what I’m like even though I can’t swim (yes, you read that correctly.) I like to walk into the water until it hits right below my boobs and just … bob. I frolic and wade to and fro … it’s lovely and I have a grand ol’ time. Sometimes I hold my nose and go underwater, just for shits and giggles. Sometimes I do my super doggy paddle (my version of swimming.) But mostly I just bob like a human buoy. I find great pleasure in this and could spend hours and hours doing this, mixed in with some reading under an umbrella. I truly enjoy the view and experience and NOTHING makes me happier than being near (or in) a body of water. I think I was a guppy in my former life, but that’s neither here nor there.

      My husband is a completely different kind of animal when it comes to this. He views beach time as a “to-do” in a beach destination and once he steps foot on the sand, sits for five minutes and dips in the ocean for another two minutes, he figures he can check off beach time from said to-do list and move on to the more interesting parts of travel, walking around aimlessly and getting lost in the culture. Now, I’m all for the last part of this but HOW COULD YOU NOT SPEND MORE THAN 20 MINUTES ON A BEACH IN THAILAND??!! I concluded something is seriously wrong with him and that, truly, the swimming skill is vastly wasted on him. (If I had that skill I’d never leave the water!) He did his best for me though, and all together I think we spent a total of six hours on the beach (we were there six days, mind you). I guess that’s better than nothing.

      We then took a private tour of the island of Phuket for various reasons:

      1. Due to my annoying pregnant-state-of-being, we couldn’t do any excursions to nearby islands (bumping along in a power boat in the middle of the Andaman Sea isn’t advised, I guess.) This was so annoying and so unfortunate, I almost exploded in rage and in no way was I comforted by “but the baby will be ok by staying put” thoughts. I was pissed! Did this baby know how much money, planning, energy and time this trip took to plan??!! I’ll be having a word or two with it regarding the matter once it makes its lovely debut into the world
      2. The Northern Thailand floods were making all kinds of headlines during our two week trip to SEA and repeatedly we read stories about how the flood waters were entering Bangkok and how the majority of tourist attractions were closed to the public. G and I had two choices: risk continuing on with our itinerary to Bangkok, come what may, or stay in Phuket, switch hotels and beaches and just chill until our next destination, Singapore. It was a matter of “stick to what we know” or “wander into the unknown” and as a result, risk losing time and money. We chose to stay three additional days in Phuket and moved on to Karon Beach.

      Before that though, we took the cultural tour of Phuket Island itself. This was a welcomed change for G, given he was overdosing on beach time (how??? I have no idea) and since we wouldn’t have the opportunity to hit Bangkok, this was the next best thing during our stay in Thailand. We opted to hire a private tour guide from our hotel – whose name I forget because I’m horrible like that – but he was great! He took us to some mostly interesting places, such as:

      Old Town - Phuket

      As well as:

      Phuket's Big Buddha in Chalong.

      Fascinatingly enough, funds for this revered project in Phuket come almost entirely from donations. This is the reason as to why it’s taken literally YEARS for this project to be completed. The view from the Big Buddha, is, in short, breathtaking, as are most views from any hilltop in Phuket:

      It’s a little embarrassing to admit that one’s dear, sweet husband needed a “break” from such amazingly pristine water, but alas, such was the case.

      Another high point of our private tour was our visit to Chalong Temple, or Wat Chalong. This temple is dedicated to two very important monks and is a point of pride for many Thais.

      It’s a very impressive compound with various buildings (as well as various souvenir stands, ready to exploit well-intentioned visitors) and is an active religious site where many go to ask for a particular wish or need or show gratitude for a granted wish or need (clearly expressed by the sudden, loud firecrackers that go off – a noisy and startling sign of one’s gratitude.)

      Temple in Wat Chalong

      Our nice driver took us to other places as well, including the Phuket Butterfly Farm where I proceeded to have one anxiety attack after another and faced the realization that, thanks to the ugly moths that invade Santiago during certain times of the year, I actually HATE butterflies. I’m sorry, but aside from their pretty little wings, butterflies are ugly, hairy creatures. I recommend it only if you’re all about butterflies weaving in and out your hair and clothes … but I wasn’t at all impressed. In fact, I pretty much freaked out and have sworn off butterflies for the rest of my life.

      I could go on and on but I insist, this isn’t a travel blog and so, suffice it to say that traveling through the island was quite interesting and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Phuket and have the time.

      A happy me on Karon Beach.

      After Surin Beach, G and I decided to switch hotels and head off to a more “popular” beach and so, we opted for Karon Beach. I did my usual bobbing and buoying in the crystal clear water, enjoyed fresh fruit under our umbrella (provided by the lady who rented the chairs along the beach) and pretty much sat in awe of the fact that I was sitting there (sweating balls, but there.) The one big downer about this beach was our hotel choice. While G and I normally stick to smaller, boutique style hotels, due to the short notice change in plans (i.e. not traveling to Bangkok after all) the only hotel we could find with vacancy was the Hilton. While the hotel itself is fine, it’s just a big chain that’s been around since DAY ONE on Karon Beach, and has its usual signs of wear and tear. Plus the grounds were just much too big for my liking and the final insult, in my opinion, was the fact that a chain hotel didn’t have a piece of beach designated for its hotel guests. It was fine, no big deal really, but it’s just a personal preference I have when staying in hotels near beaches. Even our small boutique hotel on Surin Beach had a small stretch of beach reserved for its guests. Perhaps we were just spoiled the first time around …

      And so, after six whole days in Thailand, G and I were pretty sunned out and ready to head on to Singapore. And that we did, bound for what we would soon find out would be the most freakishly clean and orderly city south of Tokyo.

      The first thing you notice about Singapore is just how modern it is. The next thing you notice is that it has absolutely no culture and no apparent history (at least, not to the naked eye). I kid you not,  Singapore could easily be “The Truman Show’s” city of choice – nothing and no one is out of place. Chinatown is a good example of this … of all the cities I’ve ever visited with a Chinatown, Singapore’s was the first where bargaining was just not done. G and I made HUGE fools of ourselves trying to haggle prices, only to be looked at with eyes of pity. We had just come from Thailand, where bargaining was the language of choice, where G and I honed our acting skills (walking away if our price wasn’t met, pretending we couldn’t care less for those fake Gucci sunglasses, when really, I did). How could it be that this country frowned upon bargaining in CHINATOWN??? It continues to boggle the mind. But hey, herein lies the glory of traveling – learning that not all drummers march to the same beat. What works in one Chinatown, simply doesn’t work in Singapore’s Chinatown.

      G and I were in Singapore for four days and split the time like this: two days in Sentosa Island and two days in Singapore itself. I’m not really sure what’s behind the whole concept of Sentosa Island but it’s a destination that’s supposed to be a type of fantasy island with various attractions, restaurants and things to do. On the island, the attractions you’ll find are a man-made beach, golf courses, five star hotels, as well as Universal Studios Singapore. We didn’t even step foot on the man-made beach, mainly because we had just come from Phuket and the idea of being on a fake beach in Singapore that boasted views of cargo ships in the short distance was just not an enticing option. I’m not really sure what I can highlight as positive or fun in Sentosa because I simply wasn’t impressed. In addition, I can’t see the mission in behind the establishment. It was neither relaxing, nor interesting nor fun. In the end, G and I left with a very “meh” feeling about it and the only reason I’d recommend going would be to hear other perspectives on it.

      Call me shallow, wickedly short sighted and 100% wrong when it comes to Sentosa Island but I much rather enjoyed Singapore itself in comparison. Though of course there’s still a part of me that is highly suspicious of how orderly everything is, in the end Singapore is a great destination for nature lovers and shoppers alike. Orchard Road is the main commercial street and is lined with numerous stores, high end, bargain and everything in between. Our favorite destination was Cold Stone Creamery, where G was introduced to the concept of mixing your own ice cream. Going to Orchard Road is a little indescribable because I really can’t find a comparison. How many places can you think of with 22 malls located on the same street??!! After going into two malls, we were pretty much over the mall scene and opted to focus on the other major city sites instead.

      Singapore Flyer and the views it offers:

      View of the city from the Flyer.
      View of the harbor from the Flyer.
      View of the harbor from the Flyer.

      Marina Bay Sands Skypark, though we didn’t actually go, we did enjoy the view!

      Marina Bay Sands Hotel

      What kills me about the Marina Bay Sands Hotel is, who thought it would be a charming idea to build three towers and place a large boat on top of them? Who was the intended target audience? Who thought of this and namely, who approved it? In short, what’s the point? These were questions that I wondered about when sitting in the park taking in this view from across the water. Yeah, it looks cool … but, I insist… a boat on top of towers?

      On the other hand, our visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens was AMAZING and for someone like G who brakes for plants and all things green, it was a short trip to heaven.

      Orchids from the Orchid garden.

      We of course did many more things, like ride the hop-on hop-off city tours and visit the Singapore Zoo (amazing!!!) but again, I’m no travel blogger.

      In the end, Singapore was an interesting country to visit and if given the chance, I’d probably go back. But one need not stay longer than one week because, after all, how much more time do you really need in a city state that measures 260+ square miles?

      This trip came about in the beginning of 2011 and it was our intention to do one last BIG trip, one that we figured would be very hard to do in the future if and when we had kids. Not so much because of Asia itself but because of the distance one needs to travel just to ARRIVE in any Asian country (believe me the air travel was loooooong). Neither of us had ever been to the countries we visited and it was, for us, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Was it relaxing? Not in the least. Maybe because I was in my first few months of pregnancy, but it was tiring mostly because our main mode of transportation was our own two feet. Plus hot, humid weather is not the best way to enjoy the preggo state of being, no matter what month you’re in. But I was a trooper (I believe) and beyond requesting a rest stop every so often (and an occasional nap thrown in), I marched on alongside my husband, like a champ. Was it relaxing? No, not at all.

      But was it amazing to see, learn and witness all that we did? Abso-fucking-lutely.

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Our trip to Pucón

I’d been to Pucón a few years ago when my mother and I lived in the States and flew down to visit family. My cousin lived there at the time with her husband and though it was great to visit her and see a new part of Chile, I went when it was wet, cold, miserable and windy. Needless to say, I wasn’t sure I saw the hype in Pucón.

Fast forward four years later and G surprises me with a trip to Pucón to celebrate my 1-year anniversary in Chile. We arrived in Temuco on Friday and the weather was insanely beautiful – a complete 180 from my former experience there. The idea was to take a “transfer” or a cab to Pucón, which is about an hour/hour and a half from the airport in Temuco. I remembered having heard from various people that the best bet when traveling outside of Santiago was to rent a car and just follow your nose (it always knows) and so I suggested it to G, who immediately agreed.

One Hertz agreement later, we were off to the hotel Enjoy of Pucon. Since the Enjoy chains have a reputation for being new and hip, stocked with lively entertainment (all hotels boast casinos) we were pretty excited to have the best of all worlds: nightly entertainment, daily ski or spa trips and beautiful scenery everywhere. The 9th Region of Chile didn’t disappoint with its natural beauty and provincial ambience. Rows and rows of fields, topped with trees galore and speckled with livestock reminiscent of “The Famer in the Dell” : cows, lambs, pigs, horses … ahhhhh country. I never imagined I’d be stoked on it but after living in smog central for a year, I’m ALWAYS happy to leave the busy, dirty city behind for a few days.

Views on our drive from Temuco to Pucón. Cows are where it’s at down there.

Lovely change from the Santiago traffic. Green everywhere and zero congestion.

High on fresh air and in the company of each other, G and I could not have been happier. We were excited to go skiing the next day, excited to venture out to unknown territories and excited to find hot springs to soak in until we pruned. Yeah … all that happiness came to screeching halt when we arrived at the Enjoy Pucón. It turns out, the Enjoy Pucón has only one thing that’s truly in line with the marketing and positioning of the Enjoy chain – the casino. It’s a brand new, asymmetrical building that definitely conveys the notion of a fun time to be had inside. HOWEVER … the hotel associated with this casino is actually the Gran Hotel Pucón and I’m not gonna lie: this hotel is older than my grandmother (if I had one). In fact, we later learned that its claim-to-fame is that Queen Elizabeth had stayed there. When? Circa 1962 when I could actually begin to imagine that the old, dilapidated hotel that stood before me was actually a grand hotel worthy of the word “grand” in the title? G and I don’t come from wealthy families and our upbringing could be described as middle-class AT BEST. Yet when we arrived, we realized that no matter what our background, silver spoons or no, the hotel was a joke. He was being charged a pretty hefty amount of money for a hotel whose lobby looked like a retirement home’s and whose rooms had a king size bed NEXT TO a twin size bed, covered in bedspreads that had me conjuring up images of Fräulein Maria making play clothes for the Von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music.” Not to mention, the bathroom had mold everywhere … Whether we’re annies or not, the fact of the matter was that G had paid for something promised in marketing, advertising and positioning messages of the Enjoy hotels. What we saw was completely the opposite. We checked in and immediately checked back out. (Thankfully the staff was very accommodating even if the rooms were hideous). There we were, G pissed and feeling like he had let me down (he hadn’t), no hotel room, hungry and with nowhere to go in the middle of Pucón. Standing outside in front of the car I said two things to G: “Thank goodness we rented a car” and “Later tonight, over a glass of wine, we’ll be laughing about this.” (At that moment he only agreed with the first statement.)

All’s well that ends well though. The truth of the matter is that we DID have a chuckle over the way our mini-vacation had started out. But things happen for a reason and it’s good to remember that no matter what one encounters, significant or not, things happen just as they should. G and I ended up staying at the Villarrica Park Lake Hotel, which was AMAZING … the joke being that the nightly rate at the 2nd hotel was less than at the Pucón Gran Hotel yet the amenities and the comfort can’t possibly be compared! The spa, the beds, the environment, the location and the views:

View from our hotel room’s balcony at the Villarrica Park Hotel.

Which of course led to complete and total relaxation on said balcony.

The rest of our vacation included a trip up the Volcan Villarrica for some skiing … we actually snowboarded and though we had a really good time, it’s safe to say that we both suck at snowboarding. Yeah we looked cool with all the gear but it’s apparent we need at least 2 more runs up to the mountain before we can walk the walk we intend to talk on the subject of snowboarding. I’ll be fair and say that G actually did really well and I’m particularly excited that after trying both skiing and snowboarding, he’s agreed with me that snowboarding is a million times better. The ski resort itself is small but I actually really enjoyed it – much more than Valle Nevado, simply because there was less people. The lift is a pretty long one since the actual slopes are further up the mountain than where the equipment is rented but it provides an amazing view of the lakes surrounding the volcano.

The lifts and the view of Lake Villarrica in the background (pic taken from the mountain).

Someone looking like he knows a thing or two about snowboarding, despite being a first-timer.

Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for myself (and I’ve snowboarded before!)

Our last day in Pucón was dedicated to submerging ourselves in water and floating until we wrinkled like little prunes. Mission accomplished with Termas Geometricas and Termas Menetue. We first went to Termas Geometricas and all I can say is WOW. Words can’t really do it justice so I’ll provide pictures. At one point, it actually started SNOWING while we were in the water and it was as if we were in the middle of someone’s movie shoot. Walking through the termas, I felt like I was in The Shire of “Lord of the Rings.” Just serenely, beautifully, naturally amazing and wonderful. I highly suggest.

Just one of many pools in the termas, containing water ranging from 4 – 40 degrees Celsius.

Adding to the already-cool environment: snow.

You might be wondering if we were freezing before and after getting in the water (and more so, after.) The reality is that it’s not that cold at all. Your body temperature rises enough so that when you step out and go to another pool, you aren’t freezing. By the time you submerge again, you barely remembered if it was cold or not.

After that, we headed to Termas Menetue, which I had actually been to when I first visited Pucón. I wouldn’t say that these “termas” were bad because that would be a complete lie. In fact, they’re a great option for families and those who wish to actually stay overnight (or a few nights) because they have a hotel/resort right on site. The thing is that after Termas Geometricas, it was really hard to adjust to a very family-friendly environment. In short, it was simply a completely different experience to be had: one was definitely more in line with nature and a rustic outdoor experience, while the other (Menetue) had enclosed “piscinas termales” (or pools with thermal water) and with a completely different target audience in mind (hence so many families). There is an “adults only” area which was recently opened (two years ago, I believe) and it was definitely nice but to arrive you had to venture through the kid friendly pool area and that was pure chaos! Their spa, where G and I each received massages (his with a Reiki session) was nice, albeit small, though again, it’s based on the comparison with the spa in our hotel. It seems unfortunate that our experience at Menetue was overshadowed by comparisons of the experiences we had just hours before, but despite our personal experience, I do believe that on its own, Menetue is a great place. Even more so if you have kids.

By the time our mini-getaway ended we had pampered ourselves into a relaxation coma. Thermal waters, massages, spas, nature = one happy couple and one relaxed G (he’s the most stressed of the two of us.) I was (and am) so grateful for the gesture on his part and that his gift included one more gift incognito: the fact that he took two days off work to travel with me. That itself is amazing because my dear husband is the epitome of a workaholic. In fact, he had barely signed his name on the credit card slip during the check out when I caught him in the middle of what he does most: work.

Pic taken in the hotel lobby before hopping in the car to head to the Temuco airport.

It served to remind me that the true gift in all of the above was the time he took to be away from his job to actually enjoy the trip with me and to completely disconnect himself from work.

On a final note, um, can I just say THANK GOD I don’t live outside Santiago … and I mean absolutely no offense to those who do because trust me, I’m the first to value your way of life in compared to mine. But when it comes to the little things, towns outside the big city just function at their own pace and on their own time. Example – we arrived at the airport relatively early because we thought we could grab a bite to eat before taking off. Oh no, no, no. Temuco Airport is having none of that. The flight to Santiago departed from Temuco at 4:50 pm and the airport shops, airline counters and lone restaurant opened at 3:30 pm. Before that, this is what it looked like:

Believe it or not, this picture is actually almost of the ENTIRE airport. It’s that small.

Oh Provincia (as the towns outside Santiago are known). I know that for the small towns this mode of operation makes total sense. After all, what’s the point of having an airport running at 100% when only 5 flights arrive per day? It was still a minor inconvenience to the two big-city dwellers who were hoping to eat at the airport and who didn’t eat breakfast in hopes of just that. I learned that next time we need to stop in Temuco to get a bite to eat and arrive at the airport at exactly 20 minutes before boarding. I highly suggest you do the same.

I’ll conclude by saying that this part of Chile is amazing – something I’m sure that most people who are planning a trip down here already know. I was very much impressed by the nature, the people and the environment in general. It was a fabulous break from the all-too-often grimy and stressful Santiago living and it made me hungry for more adventures of the sort. I love it when I realize that Chile can be (and on many occasions, IS) a pretty cool place to live.

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