Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Monkeys of Ubud

By far, the most famous tourist attraction in Ubud is its Monkey Forest - a temple where monkeys free-roam and are taken care of by their human guardians. It's a place where long-tailed macaques, a species already infamous for their boldness in proximity to humans, get even bolder and surround people at every opportunity, fuelled by people bringing food into the sanctuary.

Monkeys aside, Monkey Forest really is quite a lovely area, with moss-covered stone walkways and massive trees. It's a forest that is really allowed to grow, despite its being a tourist hot-spot, but the forest has certainly thrived because of it.

Along the way, you might see some souvenir shops selling a variety of different things to take home. While I didn't walk away with anything, it's hard not to be drawn into the souvenirs on display - especially the metal elephant wind-chimes painted in bright and beautiful colours!

Here is the temple around which Monkey Forest is built.
These monkeys know no fear. They've associated humans with food, and let me tell you - they will stop at nothing to get it.

Bit of a story here. When I was 9, my family went on holiday to the Batu Caves in Malaysia. My sister, then a mere five years old, had taken out a bottle of water to drink - except that before she could, a monkey snatched the bottle out of her hands and unscrewed the cap and had it all for itself. You read that right - the monkey unscrewed a bottle cap. (Sister was scarred and terrified of monkeys after that incident. Who wouldn't be, at five?)

The monkeys may be sacred here, but they're cheeky devils.
I present Exhibit A: the monkey that climbs humans in hopes of food. Screams were heard every time a monkey climbed onto an unsuspecting person who happened to be carrying anything vaguely resembling a grocery bag.

On the bright side, the bridge carvings are beautiful.

And I suppose sometimes you do get nice moments like when monkey and Homo sapiens hands touch. Even if the only reason for that happening is food. Monkeys will do anything for food.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Portraits of Seminyak

This is the first trip I've used my spanking new (well, really secondhand, but it's all semantics) Nikon D90 DSLR with a 35mm f/1.8 lens on, so can you really blame me for going a little bit crazy with the photographs? You can't, can you? Thought not. Anyone with even the slightest smidgeon of interest in photography can hardly say that they don't absolutely love playing around with new cameras.

Granted the Nikon D90 has been out for a while, but it was a massive upgrade from my previous Canon 550D - two control rings! And the Nikon shutter click sounds prettier too!

This one's just a fun, easy photography post - no big story here. Enjoy!

The best food we've ever had - Sea Circus in Seminyak!

This pumpkin risotto was to die for.

Faith posing, very fashion-photoshoot-like, on a staircase at our hotel in Seminyak.
And some flowers, just because!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Beaches in the middle of December? Yes please.

It's no wonder they say Bali is the Island of the Gods.

While merely 2.5h away from Singapore, I must shamefully admit that it took me a good 22 years before I stepped on Indonesian soil for the first time. Even then, it was only on a suggestion from my friend Faith, who was getting some time off from work. Why not? I said.

Bali is, these days, a popular tourist destination - and while it has always been so, it seems that Bali's tourism was amplified exponentially by the effect of being featured in Elizabeth Gilbert's hit memoir, Eat Pray Love. The Bali of Eat Pray Love is calm, relaxing, beautiful, and timeless; the Bali of today is all that, but also filled with tourists at every corner and the many tour companies and guides that have sprung up around their influx.

Still, there are some things in Bali which don't change, tourists or no. The sunsets by the beaches in Seminyak are breathtaking, clouds formed into many wonderful shapes and hanging over the horizon of the ocean, waves crashing on the shore.

And yes, this was in the middle of December - while it's snowing up in the North and while most of the world is in the clutches of winter, I was out lazing by the beach soaking up the sun.

Welcome to life on the equator.

It is immediately apparent that despite Indonesia being the world's largest Muslim country, Bali is the exception to the rule, being a predominantly Hindu community. The influence of Hinduism is everywhere, from the architecture - buildings are beautifully decorated with intricate Hindu sculptures and carvings - to the many daily offerings lain out on the streets in plates woven of banana leaf.

True to the name of being Paradise on earth, Bali's many plentiful hotels and guesthouses are kept immaculately clean, with wifi and a/c and a pool to soak up the sun by. Many also have in-house masseurs and free breakfasts, and all this starts from an affordable (dare I say, cheap?) $7-9 a night. Yes, yes, and yes.

Soonae enjoying breakfast - coffee, eggs, bread and fruit!
Bali seems to be kept in a constant spirit of festival, so there are always fairy lights and paper lanterns hung from every doorway and tree branch. Where Kuta is known for its parties, Seminyak feels more sophisticated - a little bit more upmarket, a little bit more chilled out. Seminyak and Petitenget are the two most popular beaches, where tourists come to gather, thronging the beaches, lying on the sand, watching the waves from the deck of a resort club with a drink in their hand.

Perhaps this is an expected feature of any island called 'paradise', but children running into the waves at sunset does make for a very picturesque frame. (I don't particularly like children myself, but I love photographing them!)

Don't forget that adults like playing in water too!

I love standing on the beach, just far enough out in the water to watch the waves wash around my feet.

It's especially great when your friends are as camera-crazy as you are and won't stop taking pictures of everything. What a welcome respite to the usual no-one-to-take-photos-of-me woes that the solo backpacker faces!

Yes, gorgeous friend, I'll gladly take photos for you if you'll take mine.

And then to top it all off, watch the sun disappear into black nothingness while an old Indonesian fisherman, geared up in all his traditional garb, goes fishing. (Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply to people-watch.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tunisian Highlights: A Diverse & Desirable Destination

Editor's note: This is a guest post written by Lucy Hudson.

Offering dramatic desert landscapes, historic cities, warm Mediterranean Sea waters and atmospheric little restaurants in which to spend an evening, Tunisia is a North African sun-drenched beauty spot.
Around seven million visitors arrive in this inviting country each year, mainly to enjoy its boast-worthy beaches, but if you can tear yourself away from the stunning coastline there’s a lot to see and do in fascinating Tunisia.

Small costs, big fun

North African countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have always provided excellent value for money in terms of accommodation options, restaurants and activities. The low prices for dining out, sightseeing and travel mean you can pack a lot into your holiday at very little cost. The bonus of a Tunisian holiday is the all year round sunshine, with companies like First Choice continuing to fly out through the off-peak season for those seeking winter rays. 

The Mediterranean coast

The shimmering waters of the Mediterranean Sea will provide idyllic views as you relax on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Picturesque, white and golden sands are the norm here and La Marsa, Raf Raf and Tabarka are just three examples. Hammamet is one of the country’s most popular beach towns and it exudes an unspoilt and traditional atmosphere with a distinctly Moorish feel. Don’t be surprised to find vendors offering camel rides at some of the more touristy options; there’s enough room along this coastline to find a secluded stretch of sand if you’re looking to escape the crowds.

The traditional and the cosmopolitan

Tunisia is a perfect mix of the contemporary and the historic, and you’ll find a diverse range of towns and cities once you start exploring. The capital, Tunis, offers traditional and colourful markets set amidst its narrow jumble of ancient streets, and you can easily stumble upon a mosque or historic palace by accident. Head to Port El Kantaoui and you’ll find a chic harbour with modern restaurants serving the freshest of seafood dishes. Hammamet is without doubt one of the prettiest resorts in the country with whitewashed little houses overlooking the immense 10km of beach; the sunsets alone make this trip worthwhile.

Explore the island of Djerba

Just off Tunisia’s south coast lies the idyllic little island of Djerba and an excursion by boat should be on your itinerary. This island gem offers the clearest turquoise waters in which to swim, surf, water-ski or enjoy whatever water sport action floats your boat. The island is similar to the mainland in that it boasts its own ancient medina where you can haggle for goods before dining in the many authentic restaurants. Don’t miss the charming little fishing port area or the ancient synagogue of El-Ghriba in Erriadh, said to contain the oldest Torah in the world.

Uncovering Tunisia’s history

If you want to spend some time exploring ancient Tunisia then this is a country that offers eight UNESCO world heritage sites. The most famous attraction is the incredible ruins of Carthage, which date back to 814 BC. For only a few dinars you can wander through the 10 different archaeological sites and view the remains of the Amphitheatre and the Antonin Baths. The Dougga and Bulla Regia Roman ruins are another excursion well worth taking and the impressive hilltop site includes the Temple of Saturn and the majestic columns of the Capitol. Down at Medina of Sousse, you will find an old commercial and military port that is typical of how traditional towns looked in the first centuries of Islam.

Adventure activities

Whether you fancy a trip into the Sahara Desert or a tour around some famous film locations you are spoilt for choice when it comes to activities in Tunisia. You can travel through the enchanting Sahara by jeep or camel before trying out some skiing and go-karting across the dunes. If you’re a movie buff you can visit desert locations made famous in films such as The English Patient and Star Wars; the salt lakes of Chott el Djerid and the Matmata dwellings should not be missed. Nature lovers can take a trip to Ichkeul National Park in the north to explore the huge freshwater lake teeming with pink flamingos, storks and geese.

Tunisia offers something to suit every taste whether you’re a beach lover, a culture vulture or simply want to relax and become immersed in a different way of life. This is a country that will definitely provide some unforgettable travel experiences and memories at pretty much any time of the year.

Image by, used under the Creative Commons license.

Lucy Hudson works in digital marketing and likes to share tips on holidays, online shopping and writing, through blogging! She is also a keen swimmer and is learning to be a pro at Pilates.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

There's a bizarre hill in North Lithuania that you should check out.

Filled with overgrown wild grass, this field would have looked just any other field in Lithuania if it hadn't been for the gigantic mound of crosses that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Going to the Hill of Crosses for the first time is like seeing something out of this world - frankly, it looked totally bizarre and quite a bit alien. There are hundreds of thousands of crosses here on this hill in Siauliai, north Lithuania, and every year thousands of Christian pilgrims come here to add their contribution to this hill overflowing with crosses and crucifixes of every kind, shape and size.

It feels surreal going up the steps of the hill. It's just an experience so far removed from anything else I'd ever seen before in my life - wood crosses, metal crosses, rosaries hung on crosses, crosses that look like sundials, simple and elaborate.

The story of Siauliai's Hill of Crosses is surprisingly unremarkable for a site of pilgrimage. Nothing about the site has anything to do with saints, churches or miracles performed here. It's simply a symbol of the peaceful resistance of Lithuanian Catholicism.

One day, someone stuck a cross into the ground of this earth and people followed suit. (No, really.) No Virgin Mary crying blood tears. Just someone doing something that others wound up doing, until eventually the Hill of Crosses happened.

It's remarkable to see some of the detail on the crosses that are here though. I'm not religious, and although my secondary school was Catholic, it just never appealed to me. Still, there's no denying the craftsmanship and artistry that's put into some of these pieces - intricate wood carvings of all shapes and sizes and decorated in all manners.

There's even a tiny little Lego Jesus.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Vilnius could have been 'just another' European city, but these things happened.

Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, to the unacquainted can seem like just about any other European city. There aren't any Big Bens, no Eiffel Towers. The architecture, like many other European cities, is old, largely made of brick and stone, and bears a heavy early Christian influence. While Vilnius may not seem, at first sight, to be anything to look at, it is nonetheless a city that is charming in many other ways.

First, Lithuania is surprisingly tourist-friendly, especially in comparison to neighbouring Poland. For Adeline and I, Vilnius was a day-stop on our road trip up to Siauliai to see Lithuania's Hill of Crosses; the well-marked roads and signs in Lithuania were a welcome contrast to the maze of Polish roads that made sense to none but the locals.

Let me introduce you to Šaltibarščiai.

(If you don't know how to pronounce that word, don't worry - I don't either.)

Šaltibarščiai is a Lithuanian variety of borscht, a shocking pink cold creamed beetroot soup which is absolutely perfect in the scorching heat of summer. It's creamy but not a sickening gelat creamy ('gelat' means something like 'wearisome' in Malay), a gorgeously delicious appetiser.

In fact, it was so good it would be a crime for me not to give you the recipe for making a great Šaltibarščiai on your own.

4 eggs
1 quart buttermilk
1 pound beets, peeled and shredded
1 large cucumber - peeled,
quartered, and sliced
1/4 cup minced chives
1 bunch fresh dill, mince

1. Place the eggs into a saucepan in a single layer and cover the eggs with water by 1 inch. Cover the saucepan and bring the water to a boil. Remove from the heat and let the eggs stand in the hot water for 15 minutes; drain. Cool the eggs under cold running water in the sink. Peel and chop the eggs.
2. Pour the buttermilk into a large bowl; add the eggs, beets, cucumber, chives, and dill. Stir gently to combine. Chill in refrigerator for 1 full day before serving.

Very quickly, two extremely hungry Singaporean girls discovered that food in Lithuania is by far and large pretty cheap and offers amazing value for money. Eating al fresco in summer, with appetiser and main course and paired with a passion fruit and mint mocktail - all for under SGD15? SOLD.

This rice and salmon dish cost me less than SGD10.
The food is incredible, but so is the rest of the city, which suddenly seemed a million times more interesting now that our stomachs were filled. Secondhand books being sold from a vintage suitcase for 1 Lithuanian lita? That's less than 50 Singapore cents. If I had it my way, I'd've bought the lot.

Our purpose now turned to getting lost in and discovering all of Vilnius's many pretty winding streets, being curious about every tiny little thing.

Here's Adeline being her usual photographer self.
Vilnius could have been a city just like any other. But thankfully, the experiences of exploring a new city in a new country with a wonderfully adventurous friend and delicious food more than made up for it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014 Is The Best Year For Feminism

Truth be told, I never knew how dirty a word feminism was to most people.

Like Emma Watson, deciding to be a feminist has always been uncomplicated to me. Gender equality? Sure! I'm a woman, why on earth wouldn't I want the same rights as men? I grew up in a household of three women and one man - my mom, my sister, myself and my dad - so my childhood was marked by my sister and myself getting up to all sorts of dad-stressing mischief. At home, I was lucky to escape the most obvious misogyny. I wasn't loved less for being a girl.

I was 13 when I entered secondary school and my first all-girls environment of my life. To say I loved it would be an understatement - going to CHIJ Katong was the best educational experience of my formative years. (It's right up there with doing philosophy at university.) Being in a girl's school was empowering because I was never even presented with the option of chivalry, or letting guys carry heavy books or tables because it would be easier for them than for the girls. It never crossed my mind even once that there was anything guys could or should do that girls couldn't or shouldn't. We didn't care what we said, because we never had a 'feminine' image to maintain because we wanted to impress the boys.

When I went back to a mixed gender school at 17, I noticed for the first time how surprised and even uncomfortable the boys were with me, a girl, holding doors open, offering to carry heavy things, or do other things that were otherwise considered 'gentlemanly'. To me, it was courtesy; to them, it was chivalry. For the first time in my life, the great male-female divide was starting to become apparent.

Feminism in Singapore is rarely discussed, if at all, and the movement has yet to pick up substantial momentum here. While female rights groups such as AWARE are prominent in Singapore (if you excuse their big religious takeover saga a few years ago), the subject of gender equality is almost never discussed, overshadowed by racial harmony concerns.

I am one of the lucky ones. While it was always obvious to me that women and men should be given equal opportunities and treated equally, many Singaporeans - members of my own family included - believe that a woman's duty in life is to have children, and that a woman isn't complete until she's had them. (More about my child-free decision in another post.) Married women of child-bearing age are often looked over in job applications for fear that they may become pregnant and go on maternity leave. It is still commonly accepted here that women are less capable than men by nature of their sex.

Because of the lack of discussion of gender equality in Singapore, it wasn't until I lived in Edinburgh that I started becoming aware of just how much work still needed to be done. Until a couple of years ago, I never knew that there were people who equated feminism with 'man-hating'; it always puzzled me why any member of modern society would choose not to be a feminist.

2014 has been a hell of a year for feminism. It's been a wild ride, from Beyonce declaring herself a feminist in bright lights at the VMAs to Taylor Swift coming out as a feminist to Emma Watson's recent viral speech on gender equality for UN Women.

It's never been cooler to be a feminist than now.

But feminism isn't something that should simply be 'cool' - at its core, feminism is gender equality. It's called 'feminism' because its beginnings are in the fight for women to be recognised as equal by men after centuries of patriarchal history, but really it wouldn't make a difference if you called it gender egalitarianism. Feminism's mission is the abolishment of gender roles, not the raising of one gender over another.

In China and India, female foetuses are regularly aborted. Perfectly healthy humans-to-be are denied life not because their parents aren't ready for them, not because they have some medical condition, but simply because of they aren't male. Women weren't accorded the right to vote until the close of the 19th century. In Saudi Arabia, a state known for its religious zealotry and gender-biased laws, 15 girls died in a fire after being prevented from leaving the burning school because they weren't covered or wearing an abaya, therefore being and were therefore considered sinful.

In all these cases, one thing is clear: women are categorically inferior to men, despite the fact that women are the crucibles of continuation of both male and female human life.

Feminism in some parts of the world - mostly the Nordic countries - has developed so that their biggest issues of contention have to do with numerary compensation, and for the most part men and women in society are treated equally. One of the most striking moments of my first trip to Norway in 2012 was being on the Metro and seeing a man with a baby stroller, with no wife or girlfriend anywhere in sight. Just a man and his kid, doing a parent's job.

The sad reality is that in most parts of the world, feminism's main goals are in stopping the objectification and sexual harassment of women, preventing and reporting domestic violence, and affirmation of female sexual autonomy and integrity. If a man sleeps around, he's a stud; if a woman sleeps around, she's a slut. While doing research for this piece, I came across this following paragraph:
Regardless of how you feel about promiscuity, we can all agree that a guy who manages to rack up a lot of sexual partners has to have some skills. It’s challenging for men to rack up partners, even for good-looking men or men with low standards. A man needs social intelligence, interpersonal skills, persistence, thick skin, and plain old dumb luck. For women, though, a vagina and a pulse is often enough. Whenever an accomplishment requires absolutely no challenge, no one respects it. It’s just viewed as a lack of self-discipline. People respect those who accomplish challenging feats, while they consider those who overindulge in easily obtained feats as weak, untrustworthy or flawed.
UH, NO! The rest of the article is even worse, forgiving male sexual promiscuity because it is 'in line' with male evolutionary traits of trying to spread their seed. What a double standard! That's a slippery slope - any number of unacceptable behaviours can be excused because "it's just their biology", which turns the human species to non-rational animals.* For that matter, why is it of any importance at all how many partners you're able to rack up?! Does it matter at all if you've slept with one or ten partners? No one is judged based on their sexual prowess.

*I'm not saying that humans are better than animals, simply that the fact of our civilisation's progress against other intelligent species such as cetaceans and primates suggests that Homo sapiens has the capacity to act in manners that profoundly affect both our environment and social groups.

More importantly, feminism as gender egalitarianism means that these issues - objectification, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, and more - are just as much applicable to men as they are to women. Cases of male domestic violence and rape are vastly under-reported, with the victims suffering from the same issues as affect women rape and domestic violence victims: shame and embarrassment. And just to set the record straight, rape can happen even if the perpetrator is a partner or an ex-partner, and it can happen at home. Men can be victims just as much as women, but they are often prevented from asking for help for fear of being seen as weak and therefore less of a man.

Gender roles are still very much prevalent, and they hurt yourself and those around you.

I have male friends who tell me they are upset by their virgin status, and that they feel ashamed for having to masturbate to a porno instead of going the whole way with a real human person. It makes them feel inadequate, they say. Is this really the kind of gender expectation we want to be forcing upon anyone?

Being a feminist isn't just about being trendy, or about being a part of the latest politically popular movement. A few years ago it was environmentalism, led by Leonardo Di Caprio; now it's feminism and female empowerment, led by stars Lorde, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. Having pop stars champion these moments is important because it makes them visible and gives the movement the ability to clear up any misdefinitions of what the word really means. Too long has feminism been associated with bra-burning angry women.

The Hollywood visibility of feminism today not only tells audiences that being a feminist is okay; it is also a reminder that women and men both have autonomous bodies and that it is never acceptable to violate the integrity of that body without their consent. 

For any socio-political movement, almost nothing can be more valuable than the endorsement of a celebrity. It's not that any one celebrity's endorsement can be a 'game-changer' - yes it's true, Emma Watson's UN speech did go viral and spark a great deal of response - but as this article says:
Every few months, it seems as if the media identifies an actress as the new young feminist darling, and Emma Watson is only the latest in the procession. Emma Watson may be making feminism more palatable for people who aren't comfortable with in-your-face confrontations from less camera-friendly feminists, but she isn't doing anything new or groundbreaking.
So Emma's UN speech, for the most part, was written for the same demographic as she came from - white, young, privileged, from a Western country. But unlike Amy McCarthy, who wrote the above quote, I don't think that Emma Watson has done nothing at all for the face of feminism. Emma's role, and the role of other feminist celebrities, is precisely that of making feminism palatable. And making feminism palatable is that most important first step toward gaining momentum that leads to lasting change for both women and men.

Images here, here, here, here, here and here.

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